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Kes review

Barry Hines’ classic coming of age story takes flight at Leeds Playhouse.

Lucas Button as Billy and Jack Lord as Man in Kes. Photography by Anthony Robling
Lucas Button as Billy and Jack Lord as Man in Kes. Photography by Anthony Robling

Kes makes a return flight to Leeds Playhouse this month, nesting in the Pop-Up Theatre  until 16 February.

Based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, the play tells the very Northern story of a tormented schoolboy and his self-discovery through the nurture and training of a kestrel.

Robert Alan Evans’ adaptation telescopes the tale into a compact 70 minutes, staged within a haphazard urban jungle of abandoned furniture to evoke the decay and decline of Northern industry. The location is a mining town of the mid-Sixties; young lads would no sooner finish secondary school than be down the pit — seemingly for the rest of their working lives.

Our kid in the playground is Billy Capser, played with urgent and rebellious energy by Lucas Button. His performance is wrought with all the adolescent sensitivities and anxieties you’d expect of a 15-year-old; growing in self-assurance and absorbing knowledge as he explores the world and seeks liberating experiences.

Lucas Button as Billy and Jack Lord as Man in Kes. Credit: Anthony Robling.

A chance for adventure comes in the discovery of a newly-hatched kestrel, and Button is tasked with the tricky job of bringing the creature to stage with thin air. Through ingenious mime and intense engagement with an empty space, Kes gradually comes to life and commands an ethereal presence throughout the play.

Those expecting a puppet bird on strings may be disappointed, but perhaps they’ve missed the point. Kes isn’t really about a pet bird at all, rather the relationship which is born between a boy and a chick and the lofty journey they take together as they mature. With that in mind, everything that Kes symbolises is realised in the play with the simplest techniques  — it only asks its audience to yield to its own imagination.

As a one-man walking ensemble, Jack Lord shoulders the weight of playing several supporting characters in rapid succession. Armed with little more than a cane or handbag, Lord populates the space with a landscape of personalities ranging from schoolmaster to mother. Most interestingly, he presents an older version of Billy as an anxious overseer, often berating his younger self. It’s a fascinating dialogue which foreshadows the play’s almost inevitable tragedy.

Lucas Button as Billy in Kes. Credit by Anthony Robling.

Under some masterful yet uncomplicated direction from Amy Leach, Kes has earnt its wings as a daring, poignant and brutal piece of theatre. It literally screams out in rebellion and resentment, grieving for lost opportunities. Ultimately a coming-of-age event viewed through the lens of a haunted man, Kes succeeds in interrogating our relationship, empathy and duty of care to the beings around us. Catch it before it flies the nest.

Cast: Lucas Button, Jack Lord Writer: Barry Hines adapted by Robert Alan Evans Director: Amy Leach Theatre: Leeds Playhouse Running time: 70 minutes Dates: 25 January to 16 February 2019.

Ticketsleedsplayhouse.org.uk or call the Box office on 0113 213 7700.

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