Review: Kes. Leeds Playhouse

It was pure imagination at Leeds Playhouse tonight that allowed onlookers to observe as Billy Casper’s alter-ego swooped and soared above a stage, the ingenious backdrop of which, was a gigantic 1970’s municipal climbing frame.

With Lucas Button (Billy) and Jack Lord (Various roles) who’s pedigrees both 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 West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016 and as the venue is currently undergoing an exciting transformation for the 21st century and it’s the Pop-Up Theatre that’s currently centre-stage, “It just seemed like the right space to do it in”, she explained.

For those of us of a certain age, the marginalised Billy Casper might be that of David Bradley, who in Ken Loach’s film adaptation from 1969, played the hopeless South Yorkshire youth struggling to make sense of life in a two-dimensional world. Tonight however, Lucas Button claimed Billy as his own.

Running and clambering across every inch of the stage, Button, wearing his regulation black gym-shoes, presented 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.

Jack Lord, whose stage and TV credits include A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Dad’s Army and Emmerdale, has previous form. He first inhabited the multiple characters of the co-lead that weave a web around Casper, 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 were able to encapsulate in their performance, the struggles that were commonplace in so many communities and households across the North at the time.

Hines’ work has resonated with socially-conscious audiences for decades – and is no less relevant today than it was when we first encountered Billy Casper fifty 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, were able to transport the audience from Headmaster’s study to a woodland, via a nerve-wracking visit to the ‘Bookie’s.

Kes runs at Leeds Playhouse Pop-Up theatre, Quarry Hill, until 16 February, with a number of accessible performances throughout, including Captioned, British Sign Language Interpreted and Audio Described. Highly recommended.

Colin Petch

Northern Soul – January 2019

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