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Theatre Review Kes adaptation never quite takes wing

Kes
Leeds Playhouse

A VICTIM of social circumstance and impoverished education, Billy Casper remains an anti-hero for young people from deprived backgrounds.

Robert Alan Evans’s adaptation of Billy Hines’s 1968 working-class novel seeks to distance itself from Ken Loach’s iconic film by presenting a tightly wound, impressionistic play.

Staged with just two actors, Lucas Button’s 15-year-old Billy is joined on one life-changing day by his older self. Jack Lord plays this version and all the other adult characters, from his own single mother through to the sadistic PE teacher Mr Gryce — who describes himself as being “born wi’a tracksuit on!”

The addition of his adult self lends a reflective tone, lightened somewhat in the names of the racehorses — Arthritis and Crackpot — broadcast on the wireless. And it’s underscored in the sense of possibility as, in flashbacks, the older Billy unearths objects from his past including an old Dandy comic and the gauntlet he used for training Kes.

But that mood is frequently lost in the energy of the production, as the pair clamber over Max Johns’s compact assault course of a set — the rear of the stage is walled with school chairs and an angled gym bench forms an improvised slide.

There are moments when this youthful energy works, especially when the adult and teenage selves merge to simultaneously fly the kestrel. Yet despite the scenes in which Billy re-experiences the joy of being with the bird, or attempts to intervene to stop history repeating itself, he doesn’t seem changed by the encounters.

As a result, the play never quite gains lift off.

Runs until February 16, box office: leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

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