If you’re in the prime of life then you might have seen the magnificent Ken Loach film “Kes”. One of those gritty Seventies movies, it was a favourite of English lessons to accompany the book by Barry Hines “A Kestrel for a Knave”. I don’t remember the book much but the film has stayed with me over the years. So how effectively would a stage version of a film, that heavily features a boy flying a hawk, manage to capture the visual poetry of boy and hawk? Very effectively indeed, actually. A credit to the actors in this fine drama. This from now on will be the “Kes” that I remember.
Billy Casper, a young delinquent and loner, escapes the crushing indifference of school and home by training and flying a kestrel. For him, the wild bird embodies freedom and escape from the ever-nearing adult world of work. His older brother, Jud, works in the coal mines that encircle the Northern town, and Billy, with no means of escape after school, will likely follow him down into the cruel blackness that is so different to the airy light of his hawk’s flight. Danny Hughes makes the character of Billy his own. His South Yourkshire dialect sounds convincing and he has a hang-dog stance down to a tee. The relationship between Billy and his brother Jud, played by Matthew Barker, is the source of the action of the drama, and Hughes and Barker portray this sibling antipathy perfectly. Barker’s Jud is a cocksure, working-class lad, content to live for the weekend, a few too many pints and if she’s lucky, a different type of ‘bird’ than the kind Billy is interested in.
Behind this triangle of brothers and hawk, there is a plethora of other characters, schoolfriends, teachers, shopowners and ‘Mam’. The film version of these characters provided some comic relief and the first screen appearances for actors such as Brian Glover (as a hilariously pompous PE teacher) and Lynne Perrie (Ivy Tilsley from Coronation Street) but here the two actors take up the parts as required. This works well, concentrating the focus of the drama onto the tensions between Billy and Jud, what they each represent, and at the same time allowing the two to inhabit the many really funny moments of this adaptation.
Staging and set detail are used cleverly and evoke that peculiarly British working-class atmosphere of the Sixties and Seventies. Everything, even the school blackboard, is a little bit faded and yellowed with cigarette smoke. It’s fifty years since Ken Loach’s film was made. This adaptation by Robert Alan Evans does real justice to that film and more. It’s one of those one-act plays that you wish had a second act, not because it’s not complete, but because it’s so utterly charming and captivating that you leave wanting more.