An adaptation by Rob Evans of Barry Hines’ novel A Kestrel For A Knave, Gill Robertson’s new production of Kes is a masterful depiction of the power of the human spirit to fly: and of the ability for theatre to captivate and enthrall, whether it is pitched at adults or at children.
Billy (James Anthony Pearson) appears condemned to a life without hope, trapped in a Northern mining town with his seldom-present mother and bullying brother. With no friends and teachers who don’t understand him, he seems lost – until he finds Kes, an abandoned kestrel chick which he sets himself the challenge of taming.
Pearson is joined on stage by the Man (Sean Murray), who accompanies – and consoles – Billy on his journey of self discovery. Murray also portrays all the other characters in the piece: from the sadistic gym teacher taking grim pleasure in forcing his pupils to shower in freezing water; to Billy’s mother, more concerned with where her next cigarette is coming from than the welfare of her own son.
Pearson and Murray put in excellent performances. Whilst Murray’s versatility impresses – as does his touching portrayal of the older, wiser Man – it is Pearson who excels, with a performance which perfectly captures the angst and frustration of adolescence, his wide-eyed and open-mouthed sense of joy when he is alone with Kes being truly uplifting.
The bird itself is absent from the stage: but Danny Krass’ evocative sound design and Jonathan Charles’ striking film projection ensure the spirit of the kestrel is always present. Sound, video and lighting combine to suggest the freedom of the bird and to hint at the hope it represents. And Pearson and Murray also take on Kes’ qualities at points, physically portraying its strength and grace in some beautifully choreographed moments.
Kes is yet another triumph from Catherine Wheels. Proving that theatre for a younger audience needn’t lose any of its strength or impact, their latest production soars with an emotional power which sweeps down and grabs the audience, yet never loses sight of its central themes of hope and salvation.
Kes was at the Brunton Theatre on 17 September. Now on tour, it returns to Edinburgh at The Traverse on 1 and 2 November.