Review: Kes at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

At just under 70 minutes, Kes – adapted by Robert Alan Evans from Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave – isn’t a long play, but in the hands of director Kate Bannister and the dream team at the Brockley Jack, even that brief amount of time flies by. The theatre’s latest in-house production is, in fact, something of a masterclass in every sense: performance, design and direction all come together to tell a great story really, really well.

That story is all about Billy Casper, who at 15 years old already knows he’s unlikely to ever get out of the northern mining town he calls home. Bullied by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother (except when she can steal the wages from his paper round) and victimised by most of the teachers at his school, Billy’s life offers very little to look forward to, until the day he finds a wild kestrel and decides to raise and train her. Through Kes he discovers a freedom, friendship and passion that he’s never known before – but all it takes is one bad decision to put his precarious new happiness in jeopardy.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs Hughes

We never actually see Kes, obviously (bird of prey plus small pub theatre would probably be a bad idea; you certainly wouldn’t get me in there), but her presence is very powerfully felt, thanks to two spellbinding performances from Simon Stallard and Rob Pomfret, who both interact with the young kestrel as if she were right in front of them, and to some wonderfully evocative sound design by Jack Barton. And it’s not only the bird who’s conjured into life by the production’s design; Karl Swinyard’s set perfectly encapsulates  each aspect of Billy’s uninspiring everyday world down at floor level, but opens up on higher ground – with the help of some beautiful lighting from Ben Jacobs – to reveal the vast rural landscape where Kes flies free. When she soars through the air, it’s not only Billy’s heart that lifts.

In a production that clearly doesn’t believe in limits, perhaps it should come as no surprise that two actors doesn’t equate to only two characters. Alongside Simon Stallard’s sympathetic and touchingly innocent Billy, Rob Pomfret plays a dizzying array of other roles, from a bullying headmaster to Billy’s mum, slipping from one to the other with ease. Perhaps most interestingly, though, he also plays Billy: an older, wiser version, who tries to protect his younger self from the heartbreak he knows is to come. It works both ways, however, and in looking back and confronting the pain he felt all those years before, the older Billy is also reminded of the joy that came before it – and it’s this emotion that lingers longest as the play comes to an end.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs Hughes

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Barry Hines’ novel, and I can think of no better way to mark the occasion than with this exquisite production. For some, Kes will bring back memories of the book; for others, it offers an introduction to this timeless story. Either way, it’s a must see.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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