Barry Hines’ iconic 1968 story A Kestrel for a Knave holds many memories for yours truly… the first novel we read in class at secondary school that I actually enjoyed, the unforgettable line ‘hands off cocks on socks’ in the first scene, only bettered IMHO by Iain Banks’ opening line from his masterpiece The Crow Road, and finally the brilliant cameo of Brian Glover, giving every PE teacher a bad name (or not) as the boorish Mr Sugden in Ken Loach’s austere yet acclaimed 1969 adaptation for the big screen. Both author and film maker have been in the news recently for contrasting reasons, the unfortunate recent passing of Barry Hines earlier this year followed by Ken Loach’s unexpected second Palme d’Or for his latest film I, Daniel Blake.
The tale also had a similarly profound effect on director Amy Leach who, after researching author Robert Alan Evans whose play The Night Before Christmas she recently directed, her discovery of Evans’ two-handed adaptation for A Kestrel for a Knave has led to its inevitable conclusion, namely a two-week run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse followed by 10 more cut-price dates at theatres all across the city of Leeds (3-18 June).
The 70-minute adaptation takes all the key elements of the narrative, delivering them in an innovative and engaging manner as the two cast members, helped by the delightfully chaotic stage set, as well as very physical performances, really bring this classic working class kitchen sink drama to life. Firstly there’s Dan Parr, playing the light fingered outsider and perpetually put-upon Billy Casper, failing to avoid incurring the wrath of everyone whose path he crosses, together with Jack Lord as Man. The second performer seems to skilfully gang up on our hero at every opportunity, taking several different guises, flitting between all the other characters in the story, most memorably the disciplinarian head teacher Mr Gryce, empathetic English teacher Mr Farthing, bullying older half-brother Jud, even stretching to the vulnerable yet steely Mrs Casper at one point, creating a brief moment of levity, not lost on the packed audience.
One key facet of Evans’ adaptation concerns Man, also including a grown-up Casper in his repertoire, still reminiscing his time spent with, and ultimately unable to get over the loss of his beloved hawk, adding an extra tinge of poignancy.
The production is also heavily reliant on the imagination of the viewer, particularly during the scenes where Kes is being trained to fly by Billy using the lure. Naturally there is no live bird but the sheer energy and joy portrayed by Casper, stood on top of the set spinning one way then the other, more than makes up for it… the one time when the audience realise boy and bird are truly free.
After almost half a decade, the mining industry backdrop to Kes may be long gone but this story of a boy’s struggle to find his place in the world still feels as relevant as ever.
For more information about the production, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website.