The most frequent responses to my reviewing this new adaptation of ‘Kes’ at the newly refurbished Octagon Theatre in Bolton a co-production with Theatre by the Lake, were ‘ Ooh, I read that at school’ or ‘I love the film’ (often followed by an impersonation of Brian Glover as the PE teacher). Any of the audience attending last night expecting a faithful rendition of the novel, or wanting a staged version of the film, would have been disappointed. What they got instead was an intensely theatrical experience; a story of ‘a boy, not a bird’, that should be appreciated for its own considerable merits.
This northern story of Billy Casper (Jake Dunn) finding and training a kestrel is so embedded in the psyche, that the initial moments of this new adaptation by Robert Alan Evans are disorientating. With house lights up and actors addressing the audience directly through stand microphones, this is a million miles from the realism of Hines’ novel or Ken Loach’s film. We are led into Billy’s story through a series of illustrative tableau, arriving jumbled and confused as if in a memory, it is both detailed and allusive simultaneously. The grotesque figures that populate his life, his teachers and his family, are all portrayed by The Man (Harry Egan) as the eponymous Kes (Nishla Smith) hovers above the stage watching proceedings unfold.
Dunn is well cast as Billy, with lithe muscularity and staring eyes (think Ian Curtis), he embodies the quick witted intelligence of Hines character. When he defiantly announces ‘I’m going down that pit and I’m going to work until I can work no more’, we see in him the sadness and waste of so much potential; a million kids who will never get the chance to achieve. Egan is a ‘tour de force’, managing with a few deft strokes to bring to life a vast array of characters. As mother, brother, kindly teacher, sadistic teacher, shopkeeper and friend, he imbues each with a quality that sticks in the memory, both caricature and character; an outstanding performance.
Suffusing the entirety of the show is the presence of Nishla Smith. Her lilting musicality lifts this piece to an ethereal level, singing plaintive versions of songs Billy would have internalised from the constantly playing on-stage radio (Rodgers & Hammerstein, The Girl from Ipanema) and used as a language between Billy and Kes.
If all this sounds esoteric and inaccessible, it isn’t. Evans’ adaptation successfully mines the source material for humour and warmth whilst accentuating the uncaring and callous world that Billy grows up in. Director Atri Banerjee utilises the full expanse of the Octagon theatre to create a feeling of space and possibility beyond the cold, dirty white box that represents the Casper home; a triumph of utility from Set Designer Anisha Fields. The piece has the sensibility of modern dance running through it, the actors move balletically with poise and an exact grace that Movement Director Jennifer Jackson has painstakingly choreographed. At just 65 minutes with no interval, I first felt Evans could have added more and explored the themes of loss and alienation to a fuller extent, but on reflection these fractured glimpses of Billy’s world added to the impact.
Overall, gorgeous, stylised, impressionistic and haunting; a bold reimagining of a modern classic.
Kes continues at The Octagon until 2nd April, tickets can be found at https://octagonbolton.co.uk/whats-on/theatre/kes/
Kes also visits Theatre by the Lake from Wednesday 6th – Saturday 30th April. Box office www.theatrebythelake.com or via 01768 774411.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 14th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★