Review of Kes at Bolton Octagon.

Robert Alan Evans’ adaptation of Barry Hines’ novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ recounts that familiar tale from a refreshingly different perspective. Here, Billy Casper is an adult, and the play reflects back on that pivotal period in his younger life when he found and trained a kestrel.

As Billy unpacks the contents of an old cardboard box, memories from his childhood come tumbling back. Evans’ play doesn’t always flow in a direct line, nor does its episodic style seek to replicate the book’s more conventional narrative approach. It also layers on the idea of someone trying to make sense of their past, and a long buried traumatic experience being revisited.

Characters appear like phantoms, unbidden and seemingly at random. Harry Egan who starts out playing adult Billy, takes on the roles of other protagonists from his past life – including his stressed-out mother, angry brother, and a whole staff room’s worth of teachers. As Billy, he also attempts to enter into a dialogue with his younger self (portrayed by Jake Dunn).

Director Atri Banerjee makes many bold innovative choices – including the addition of a third performer.  As The Singer, Nishla Smith not only adds her musical voice to the mix but serves to represent the kestrel. Emphasising the close connection that has developed between the two of them, she can often be heard softly calling out to Billy. Smith also creates a strong physical presence – with her hands gripping claw-like over the top of the set, feet balanced precariously on the stage edge, or arms extended in flight.

The hard grind of everyday life is effectively evoked. Viewed from on high, Billy’s hometown in 1960s South Yorkshire is dismissed as a “dirty grey smudge”, with the pit looming large over it. Money is tight, tempers short, and prospects limited.

Young Billy’s relationship with Kes, the growing bond between boy and bird, allows him some escape from that grim reality. Similarly, Banerjee’s revelatory production dramatically breaks free from mundane limitations. Characters refuse to be constrained within the traditional confines of the set – climbing up out of it, clambering all over the stage, and breaking the ‘fourth wall’.

There’s something almost dream-like about the script’s story-telling – a jumble of incidents hazily connected – and the staging ramps up that sense of woozy dislocation.

A swimming pool ladder leads down into designer Nisha Fields’ grubby walled, net-curtained domestic setting. That meeting of the ordinary and the other worldly is echoed in the other elements of the show, with sound, light and movement coming together to create a carefully choreographed assault on the senses.

Dusty Springfield drifts tinnily out of an old radio (“what do you do when love dies”); a mic discordantly slapping into the palm of a hand mimics the thwack of a cane; voices are amplified and then not; spotlights flash in time to the rhythm of a racetrack commentary; and someone chalks a long swirling line across the floor. This is no attempt to rehash the novel or film adaption. Unashamedly theatrical in its delivery, it’s thrilling to experience.

Harry Egan does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of performance as he switches back and forward between various characters, and also squeezing in some crowd-pleasing humour as Billy’s gormless PE teacher. As young Billy, Jake Dunn effectively conveys the gentle vulnerability beneath the cheeky bravado. The addition of Nishla Smith’s Singer is an inspired move. Her voice and presence often lift scenes into another dimension – particularly the beautifully meditative moments where Billy sits in quiet contemplation, totally absorbed by Kes, and a golden glow envelops them.

Feather light yet talon sharp, Atri Banerjee’s artfully constructed ‘Kes’ reminds us that in a harsh world there is still room for hope, and even seemingly unremarkable lives have the potential to take flight.

Bolton Octagon.

Performance seen on 14 March 2022.

Kes runs from 10 March to 2 April 2022 at Bolton Octagon. Then at Theatre by the Lake from  6 April to 30 April 2022.

Images by Marc Brenner


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