A Kestrel for a Knave is a much-loved book by Barry Hines, successfully transformed into a film 50 years ago. Adapted for the stage by Robert Alan Evans, Kes certainly works hard to bring something fresh and innovative to the theatre.
Leeds Playhouse last produced Kes in 2016, directed by Leeds Playhouse’s Associate Director Amy Leach. This version has been remounted by Martin Leonard, with fresh ideas yet building on the success of the last production.
The plot is simple – too simple. A teenage boy, Billy, sets his heart on training a kestrel. The people around him think he’s a bit weird and he gets into a few awkward altercations but it’s not really the end of the world. After Billy buys a bag of chips instead of putting a (what turns out to be winning) bet on for his nasty brother, Jud, things get a little darker… I don’t want to include a spoiler, but all I will say is if I were Jud I’d be pretty annoyed at Billy too.
The set reveal gets the show off to a great start. Designed by Max Johns, it really works to support the abstract adaptation. The actors smoothly clamber the set, made up of a mountain of old chairs. Small token props such as a desk and armchair allow scenes to transition naturally from one to another, providing a solid foundation for an exciting and pacy show.
The production at Leeds Playhouse has a cast of two: Lucas Button as Billy Casper and Jack Lord as… everything else. Button portrays Billy as a total outsider, which makes his weird, obsessive relationship with his bird seem rather creepy. The friendship between boy and bird is meant to symbolise freedom and love – unfortunately this just doesn’t come across. I can’t help but think “it’s just a bird.”
Jack Lord ably plays a range of roles, from the grown-up version of Billy to Billy’s teachers, Mum and brother. He slickly transitions from one part to another but the device to use just one man to play a cast of thousands gives the whole production a very ‘contemporary arts’ vibe. The audience is expected to make allowances for inconsistencies and irritancies because it’s ‘quirky’. I’m afraid I don’t have the imagination or the empathy to care much for an invisible bird. Watching Button and Lord twirl around an imaginary string is one step off interpretive dance, and that’s not really my bag. I’m a sucker for a tear-jerker, and I’ll cry at a soggy bottom on Bake Off, but towards the end when the pair discuss the long-lasting trauma of the events, again I can’t help but think “it’s just a bird.”
The casting unfortunately seems responsible for the lack of emotional depth. The emotive music, lighting and direction is uplifting yet poignant – but it’s the fine balance between ‘cute boy trains bird’ and ‘creepy teen bird-naps a Kestrel’ that just isn’t quite right.
For a short show, just over an hour, the production manages to pack in the story without being rushed. The timing is perfect and gives Kes fans the chance to see their favourite book or film transformed under a new light.
Photography by Anthony Robling