Kes : The Stage Production Reviewed

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"I think that's the best play I've ever seen", my mum says as the applause for 'Kes' dies down. To put this in context my mum is not usually the most magnanimous of critics. When Lulu, of whom my mum was a big fan, played in Perth she left halfway through the show and demanded a refund because Lulu was too scruffy and the band, 'subpar'. Her unqualified praise is basically rarer than a solar eclipse and it took me slightly aback.

She's got a point though. There is something about Lu Kemp's production of 'Kes' that is deeply affecting. It must have been a bit of a high wire act bringing a story so beloved in at least two previous iterations, Barry Hine's searing novel and Ken Loach's career-cementing film, to the stage.


The novel 'A Kestrel for a Knave' is one of those rare pieces of literature that inspired people with no interest in books to pick it up and it (and the film adaptation) certainly made an impression on me when I studied them at school. 

Ken Loach's 'Kes', made just a year after the book's publication is equally iconic. The plot, troubled young boy discovers a better life training a wild bird has a ring of Disney about it (in fact Disney did try to acquire the rights but Hines refused as they wanted to soften the ending) but it also has that signature Ken Loach ring of social realism and compassion about it.

"I think that's the best play I've ever seen", my mum says as the applause for 'Kes' dies down.

Working from an adaptation by Robert Evans, the cast of Danny Hughes and Matthew Barker is simply exceptional. Evans distillation of the source material down to just an hour of dialogue is a masterclass of concision but it leaves the cast with a lot of ground to cover.

Barker, in particular, has the unenviable task of portraying every adult character from the novel, including Billy's mum. His take on Billy's older brother Jud is particularly noteworthy. In the film version, Jud is monotone and monosyllabic but Barker plays him with a little more spark. There is a touch of 'Trainspotting's' Sick Boy in the glint in his eye and his bubbling undercurrent of malevolence.

Danny Hughes is equally adept in his role as Billy Kasper although having rewatched the film recently in a screening hosted by Perth Film Society it takes me a while to adjust to a less gaunt protagonist. There is great chemistry between Hughes and Barker as all his male tormentors as the pair seamlessly segue between scenes aided by an ingenious set that transforms between a changing room and a coal face at the drop of a hat.

Kes Review - Billy and Jud

There is no Kes as such, rather she is suggested by the finely tuned movements of the actors and the lure. This illusion is further enhanced by the utterly immersive sound design and score. Wings flutter overhead and lamps flicker as Billy lures Kes towards him. As I say, there is no bird but that doesn't stop me glancing upwards just to make sure. I've just put on a clean shirt and I don't want to get pooped on.

Staging the play in the more intimate Joan Knight studio was also a great decision. The lack of distance between stage and theatregoer's creates palpable energy between the cast and theatregoers that Danny and Matthew seem to really feed on.  

Matthew Barkers Jud, has a touch of 'Trainspotting's' Sick Boy in the glint of his eye.

Evan's adaptation takes a bold risk in stepping beyond the bounds of the original play. The framing device of an older Billy revisiting his childhood memories is an effective one but it gives away information about his current career that makes the events of the play seem that much bleaker. Personally, I found that sad beyond words but thinking about it and having re-read the book, I have to concede that it does have a ring of truth to it.

I won't give away the ending other than to say it packs quite the emotional punch. Having watched the film and play and read the book all within the space of two weeks I have no relived it three times in quick succession and for the next week, I'm going to avoid anything with even the merest whiff of a sad ending. 

Kes is a truly great piece of theatre, one of those rare instances where everything seems to come together just right, creating an experience that will linger in your mind long after you leave the auditorium.

If you want to see how lead actor Danny Hughes got his claws into the role you can read the Small City article  in the Arts & Culture section.

Kes - Live at Perth Theatre runs until the 16th of November.

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