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THEATRE REVIEW: Kes, Liverpool Playhouse

Philip Key says it's not about the film and it's not about the bird

Published on September 23rd 2009.


THEATRE REVIEW: Kes, Liverpool Playhouse

IT'S not quite Hamlet without the prince but Kes - the tale of a Yorkshire schoolboy and his kestrel - does not actually feature the live bird.

There is a bit of humour, but Kes, the stage play, is drama with a capital D. It is delving deep into the psyche of Billy and those around him. It is not a jolly night out

Mind you, it would have been difficult to have had a wild bird flapping around the Playhouse auditorium, and the kestrel is really only a peg on which to hang a study of how an unhappy boy finds some sort of contentment in an unusual and secret pastime: in his case, falconry.

Set in the 1960s - as was the novel by Barry Hines and the subsequent film, both produced in that decade – the production is almost an historic drama.

This is a Yorkshire where the coal mines are still running and "going down the pit" is the most likely career move for many, and where the headmaster still swishes the cane on errant pupils.

It is certainly grim up north for Billy Casper and his family.

He is not happy at a school where, he says, "the teachers are not bothered with us and we are not bothered with them." Coming to the end of his school career he is not sure what he wants to do apart from being adamant that he does not want to go down the mines.

His father has left home, his mother fills in her time with a man friend and drinking, while older and angry brother Jud is working in the mine and betting on horses.

Billy's world is turned around, however, when he finds a young kestrel and decides to train it using a library book on falconry.

His teachers and others look on him as a lost cause, including English teacher Mr Farthing. But when Billy is forced to the front of the class to reveal his unusual hobby, Mr Farthing sees something in the wayward youth. Is he worth saving after all?

The book on which it is based, A Kestrel for a Knave, is a popular GCSE set text, so the Playhouse has a ready-made school audience and this production will tour after Liverpool thanks to the Arts Council-backed Touring Consortium.

The adaptation comes from Lawrence Till (producer and director of TV's Shameless) who first tackled the stage version in the early 1990s, later creating a musical version.

While there are no songs in this Playhouse version, but music from composer David Shrubsole is very much part of the experience, creating just the right mood.

As Billy, Stefan Butler turns in an exemplary performance in what is very much a star turn. He may have a rather squeaky voice but it seems to fit the character of the outsider, the boy who does not fit in. He features in every scene.

Dialogue is given the full, Yorkshire, colloquial treatment, sometimes a little over-cooked but giving the drama a definite atmosphere.

There are some stereotypes: The blustering headmaster (Mike Burnside), the careworn mother (Katherine Dowblyton), the tough sports master (David Crellin) and the caring English teacher (Daniel Casey). The actors manage to bring some credibility to their role but, as written, tend towards the two-dimensional.

Professional actors Peter McGovern and Oliver Watton play two of the leading pupils in the school scenes, the sort of pupils who tend to have a smoke behind the bike sheds, but interestingly, other pupils are played by real schoolchildren from four local schools. They bring a freshness and touch of reality, and, once on tour, children from other cities will be taking over.

Director Nikolai Foster uses an open stage and various props to suggest many of the scenes, a decision which requires a little imagination from the audience (particularly when the Casper family seem to live in a house full of school desks). But, generally, Matthew Wright's set works well enough with its black slag heap towering over events.

What is a little distracting is the occasional use of ballet-like dance at various points, its purpose not that evident. Is it suggesting the kestrel's flight, Billy's desire to get away or just the freedom of the country life away from the pit and school? Who knows?

One thing in the production's favour is that it does not attempt to ape the successful film version by Ken Loach. Not one member of the cast is reminiscent of their counterpart in the movie and the structure is very different.

There is a bit of humour, but Kes, the stage play, is drama with a capital D. It is delving deep into the psyche of Billy and those around him. It is not a jolly night out and those who know the book or the film will know that the story has an element of Greek tragedy about it.

I can't say I understood Billy any more after the final curtain, however. His is a complex character given to many brooding looks and slow reactions in Butler's intriguing performance. There is little attempt to make him into a hero, either, just a lad finding it difficult to cope with what is happening around him.

He's not even that likeable, the sort of chap whose reticence could wear you down quite easily.

It is a play, indeed, that begs more questions than answers. But because of that, audiences should find plenty to talk about once they have left the theatre.

7/10

Kes, Liverpool Playhouse, Williamson Sq, L1. Until Oct 10. Tickets: 0151 709 4776

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