Theatre Review: Kes, Leeds Playhouse
It was pure imagination at Leeds Playhouse that allowed onlookers to observe as Billy Casper’s alter ego swooped and soared above the stage against an ingenious backdrop of a gigantic 1970s municipal climbing frame.
With Lucas Button (Billy) and Jack Lord (various roles), whose pedigrees include War Horse at the National Theatre, the audience may have been excused for expecting sophisticated puppetry, coupled with an extensive cast, performing tonight’s Kes in West Yorkshire. Instead, a paired-back adaptation of Barry Hines’ 1968 Northern masterpiece, A Kestrel for a Knave, greeted Monday night theatre-goers.
Director Amy Leach first brought Kes to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016. As the venue is undergoing an exciting transformation, the Pop-Up Theatre is currently centre-stage. “It just seemed like the right space to do it in”, she said.
For those of us of a certain age, the marginalised Billy Casper is David Bradley who, in Ken Loach’s 1969 film adaptation, played the South Yorkshire youth struggling to make sense of life in a two-dimensional world. Tonight, however, Button claimed Billy as his own.
Running and clambering across every inch of the stage, Button, wearing his regulation black gym-shoes, displayed vulnerability, defiance and hope in equal measure. His performance effortlessly took the room with him to the summit of a pit-spoil heap, as we watched his beloved kestrel wheel and dive through an imagined blue sky.
Lord, whose stage and TV credits include A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Dad’s Army and Emmerdale, has form. He first inhabited the multiple characters of the co-lead in the 2016 re-telling of Kes. His transformation from gossiping neighbour to PE teacher Mr Sugden was enthralling. As Casper’s older brother Jud, Lord captured perfectly the frustrations and fears of a young miner trapped, not by an underground rock-fall, but by his own limitations.
The chemistry between the actors, accentuated by their physical acrobatics over, through and under the set, was clear to see. Both Button and Lord encapsulated the struggles that were commonplace in so many communities and households across the North at the time.
Hines’s work has resonated with socially-conscious audiences for decades – and is no less relevant today than it was when we first encountered Billy Casper 50 years ago. His ability to magnify the minutiae of the day-to-day existence came from his own experiences growing up in a community not dissimilar to Billy’s.
The stage performance was further enhanced by the inventive and evocative use of audio, as the creative team behind the production transported the audience from headmaster’s study to woodland via a nerve-wracking visit to the bookie’s.
Kes runs at Leeds Playhouse Pop-Up theatre, Quarry Hill, until February 16, 2019, with several accessible performances throughout, including captioned, British Sign Language interpreted, and audio described.
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