Kes, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

When Barry Hines wrote his classic novel A Kestrel for a Knave in 1968, he may well have been following F Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that "an author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever after".

When Barry Hines wrote his classic novel A Kestrel for a Knave in 1968, he may well have been following F Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that "an author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever after". While it would be reassuring to imagine that sadistic games masters, hard-hitting head teachers caught in a timewarp and inept careers advisers are a thing of the past, the wry laughter of the unusually young audience at Lawrence Till's stage adaptation of Kes suggests that they're still instantly recognisable, uncomfortably familiar figures.

They are also durable enough to outlive their portrayal in Ken Loach's iconic Sixties film, at least when brought to such vivid, caricatured life as in Sarah Frankcom's conscientious production, moved into the early 1970s. There is no lack of gritty Northern realism in the chronicling of a day in the life of Billy Casper, for whom there is precious little hope in life - as the closed-down Palace Picture House proclaims: "Forthcoming attractions: nought." Through Andrew Garfield's beautifully judged performance as the vulnerable Billy, the audience, too, lives for his exhilarating release with the kestrel hawk he has trained, sharing his fleeting moments of the possibility of a life beyond his cheerless home, the vicious torment by both boys and teachers, and the crushing prospect of employment down the pit.

Some scenes feel long, especially those establishing Billy's impoverished home life with his shallow, uncomprehending mother and violent, resentful half-brother, Jud; and, later, the prolonged hymn-singing ritual of morning assembly at the school. But there are some telling performances in other, almost cinematic episodes. Philip McGinley's description of squelching among wriggling tadpoles is toe-curlingly graphic, and Gary Dunnington is both acutely funny and deeply loathsome as the soccer coach who, in his dreams, is clearly Bobby Charlton.

The liberal, baggy-corded Mr Farthing, who senses some potential in Billy's astonishing feat, against all odds, as a self-taught falconer, is given an unsentimental portrayal by Roger Morlidge. There's considerable talent, too, among the many fresh young faces making their Royal Exchange debuts as Billy's callous peers.

Structured so that the action, with the help of flashbacks, takes place from morning until night, the play relies on the seamlessness of Becky Hurst's versatile, low-budget set to convey Billy's bleak home, soulless school, and the open fields backing on to the deprived estate. Cloudy skies are always visible above grassy mound, pulley-bed, and arrangements of tables and chairs suggesting kitchen, classroom, changing-rooms, shops, library and disused cinema. The problem of how to present the all-important bird is solved by ingenious use of surround sound, so that you find yourself turning to follow the low whistling, heavy flapping of wings and squeaky noises circling the Exchange's in-the-round space. The silence, when Kes doesn't respond to Billy's increasingly desperate calls, is deafening.

To 16 October (0161-833 9833)

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