In Review

Kes review: a play that’s both bleak and brilliant

Atri Banerjee’s adaptation of the 1968 novel features just three actors on a simple set

Any stage adaptation of Barry Hines’s 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave faces considerable challenges, said Chris Bartlett in The Stage. It’s not just that Ken Loach’s 1969 film version, Kes, is “seared onto the memories of a generation of cinemagoers”, so expectations for this “most iconic of British coming-of-age stories” will always be sky-high. It’s also that the story hinges on the intense bond between a 15-year-old boy and a live kestrel.

However, Atri Banerjee’s visually arresting and “coherently realised” staging solves that problem by never actually showing us the titular bird. Kes is talked about, in evocative passages where the young Billy explains how he found and trained the kestrel; meanwhile its movements are represented onstage by Nishla Smith, whose hauntingly beautiful singing voice – on versions of 1960s standards such as The Girl from Ipanema – also expresses the characters’ hopes and desires.

The brisk one-hour staging, featuring just three actors on a simple set, is more a “poetic evocation” of Kes than a “slavish” adaptation, said Mark Fisher in The Guardian. We get all the famous scenes of sadistic teachers and misplaced bets, but not always in the order we expect. And if we don’t quite get the “full force of Billy’s innocent appreciation of the bird”, we certainly do feel moved by the absence of Kes/Smith at the culmination of what is a “bold and adventurous ensemble production”.

The actors are first-rate and their accents are properly “Barnsley-authentic”, said Neal Keeling in the Manchester Evening News. Jake Dunn brings “energy and fragility” to the role of the angry, abused, neglected Billy – and also conveys his “wide-eyed fear and wonder” when he realises, thanks to Kes, that escape is possible from a “dirty grey life”. In a tour-de-force performance, Harry Egan plays multiple parts, including Billy’s thuggish brother and the sadistic PE teacher Mr Sugden (played by Brian Glover in the film). And Smith’s “haunting, ethereal” interludes shower hope over the grim reality of Billy’s life. It’s a bleak play, but brilliant.

Octagon Theatre, Bolton, until 2 April, then Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, 6-30 April

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