Back in my school days, I, along with everyone else had to read a book called ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines. At the time, I thought it was an okay book, but I didn’t really think too much about it. The book was made into a film by Ken Loach in 1969 and finally a play by Robert Alan Evans which is currently being presented at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley.
A middle-aged man (Rob Pomfret) is troubled. images, sounds and memories are racing through his mind, taking him back to his childhood, in a northern mining town in the late 1960s. We travel back in time with him to a milestone day in his younger life when he was plain Billy Casper (Simon Stallard) a fifteen-year-old boy from a working-class home, with a brother down the mines, a flighty mother and an absent father. By any standards, Billy’s life is pretty bleak. School is horrendous for the young lad, and there is little to look forward to when he leaves and faces a future, like so many of his contemporaries, down the mine. His life only has one bright spot in it – his kestrel, Kes. Raised since she was a chick and now trained by Billy to a very high standard, Kes is the winged centre of Billy’s existence. He will do anything for his bird, and everything else in his miserable life is secondary to Kes, leading to events which will affect him forever.
Although my memory of the original book was sketchy – it was quite a while ago – I was surprised when I saw the programme and realised there were only two actors in this production of Kes. From my memory, the story had quite a few characters that were very different in age, gender, social standing and even the way they talked, and I was intrigued as to how Director Kate Bannister was going to be able to pull this off with a small cast.
I needn’t have worried, because this production was absolutely spot on from start to finish. Karl Swinyard has designed an excellent set which, when combined with Ben Jacobs’ light design, makes the Jack Studio’s intimate stage space feel a lot larger than it really is. So we were easily able to travel with Billy from his bedroom, through the living room, out on his paper round, to school, and a host of other places. Also, l have to mention the sound design from Jack Barton which combines brilliantly with the action – especially when the lure is being swung – but also includes nicely accurate background sounds – including a flying kestrel – to really add to the atmosphere of the piece.
Rob Pomfret is excellent in his role as “The Man”, breathing life into everyone that young Billy meets and making each character an individual in their own right. So we had everyone from Billy’s brother Jud, to his mother and the sadistic teacher Mr Sugden interacting with the boy and generally making his life a misery. In fact, Rob’s performance as Sugden really brought back horrible memories of a teacher from my childhood, and will probably be responsible for re-igniting nightmares of my youth. Simon Stallard is perfect as young Billy, a lad who is not a stereotypical storybook hero. Let’s be honest, he is happy to steal to get what he wants. And it is true, that he is very much the architect of his own story and the fall-out of his actions. However, it is impossible not to like the character and seeing Simon, brought back all the memories I had of people I went to school with in Lancashire in the 1970s, many of whom still talked in the same rather archaic way that the book characters do. Simon really brings out the change in personality between Billy’s school/home life and the time he spends with Kes – as he goes from a quiet, retiring, downtrodden boy to a youngster on the verge of manhood so full of life as her flies his bird.
Discussing the show afterwards with my companion Lynne, both of us remarked on how well the production had captured the book and brought it to life in a wonderful way. I joked that it was ‘just okay’, and was given quite a lecture on why I was wrong and everything that was right with the show. And, although it pains me to say it, Lynne was perfectly right. There was not a single aspect of Kes that didn’t work and the entire production captured the essence of the original and transferred it to the stage in an excellent and very realistic manner. This was one of those shows where my attention never wavered and, at the end of seventy minutes my first thought was that I had seen a great show and my second was to get hold of a copy of the book and relive the story once more.
Review by Terry Eastham
Billy Casper is 15 years old. Bullied at school and unhappy at home, he doesn’t fit in.
But when Billy comes across a wild kestrel and realises he can train her, he discovers a new life above the small Northern mining town in which he lives. Together they learn to fly and Billy finds friendship and hope – until one snap decision and an unplaced bet change things forever.
Kes is the story of Billy’s heart. How it came to beat and how it came to break. The Jack Studio Theatre presents the Off West End premiere of this powerful adaptation of Barry Hines’s much-loved modern classic, A Kestrel for a Knave, which was published fifty years ago in 1968.
Kes is produced by the same team behind The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Haunting and Shipwrecked!
The Jack Studio Theatre presents
adapted for the stage by Robert Alan Evans from the novel A Kestrel for a Knave
by Barry Hines
Venue: Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Wednesday 2 to Saturday 19 May 2018
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH