The prospect of a dance-theatre adaptation of Kes brings a whole range of faintly surreal images to mind. Will there be a chorus line of dancing Brian Glovers? Will we see flat caps flying through the air? Would there be a heartfelt rendition of “yer killed me bloody bird, yer bloody bastard” complete with jazz hands?
The answers to all these questions is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no – for Barnsley-based choreographer Jonathan Watkins’ adaptation, which draws on Barry Hines’ original novel, A Kestrel For A Knave, more than the Ken Loach film, is more graceful than it is gritty.
While Hines’ novel is dialogue-driven and reliant on local dialect, this is a speech-free dance piece. Its story is a familiar one – especially in South Yorkshire – and also a relatively simple one: boy is unhappy at home and school, helps take care of a kestrel, and in doing so sees the potential in himself. Even so the focus on the physical sometimes leads to a lack of narrative clarity.
It’s a visually stunning production though; particular scenes stick with you – the transformation of newspapers into a flock of birds, a bleak yet exhilarating dance between locals in a down at heel pub, and the first appearance of the titular kestrel, represented in puppet form and beautifully controlled by Laura Careless. As the bird swoops and soars in tandem with his human counterpart, it’s impossible not to feel the goosebumps rising.
Watkins has assembled an excellent cast to achieve his vision – an eight strong ensemble of professional dancers is supplemented by a group of local schoolchildren, and the youngsters more than hold their own against the more experienced performers. They’re particularly well used in the iconic football scene, which perfectly conveys the painful tedium of being stuck in goal; there’s also an amusing recreation of a school assembly in which All Things Bright And Beautiful is sung with gusto.
Of the professional cast, Chester Hayes plays the lead role of Billy, transforming before our eyes from a sulky, withdrawn boy, bullied both at school and home, into a carefree, graceful teenager when flying his beloved kestrel. Hayes is a capable actor as well as a dancer, portraying Billy’s unhappiness, his yearning to break free, with just his eyes and body language. And while it’s true that this Billy is a lot more ripped than the skinny waif famously portrayed by David Bradley, that’s an inevitable by-product of the medium. Laura Caldow seems rather jarringly young to be playing Billy’s mother and is saddled with an unflattering blonde wig, but her performance is beautifully expressive and moving, whether she’s flirting with lovers in her local pub or just dancing alone at home.
There are some moments that feel unintentionally amusing. A fight in a playground is broken up by a teacher twirling across the stage, while Hayes delivers newspapers with the sort of moves that might well still see you beaten up on the real-life streets of Barnsley. Alex Baranowski’s score is, however, gorgeously atmospheric, ranging from minimal, subtly clanking percussion, fragile Nyman-esque chords and, when the kestrel soars, some gloriously uplifting strings reminiscent of Sigur Ros.
There are some niggling issues with narrative. Tom Jackson Greaves, who plays Billy’s brutal older brother, seems rather too similar in both age and appearance to Dom Czapski who plays his father, leading to some confusion. Some of the more subtle elements are lost. If you weren’t well acquainted with the source material you might struggle in places. Is Billy’s mother was having an affair? What is that little slip of paper and why are the brothers fighting over it? It’s also difficult to remain emotionally engaged with the piece over nearly two hours. There are times when you find yourself wishing for words. The final moments of Billy’s beloved Kes are, however, beautifully performed and incredibly moving.