Lawrence Till, adapted from Barry Hines' A Kestrel for a Knave
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Barry Hines' classic novel A Kestrel for a Knave, about a boy who does not fit into either the regimented education system or the expectations of his working class upbringing but who has a special talent, has been adapted for the stage by Lawrence Till, retaining the shortened title of Ken Loach's 1969 film. Billy Casper (Andrew Garfield) does not do very well at school and is bullied both at school by his former friend MacDowall (Steven Webb) and at home by his older brother Judd (William Beck). Billy's father disappeared when he was six and his mother is always going out, leaving him to fend for himself. Judd works in the local coal mine and Billy is expected to follow in his footsteps when he leaves school in the next few months, but is determined not to. However when he finds a kestrel chick and teaches himself how to raise and train it with the aid of a library book, he discovers a real passion that gives him an escape from the mundane reality of the rest of his life, and he finds that he is not as useless as his teachers and family keep telling him he is.

Sarah Frankcom's production conjures up the late sixties / early seventies period nicely. It shows various battles between the old and the new that were going on at that time: discipline and corporal punishment in schools as opposed to rebellion and understanding of the individual; following the trade or occupation of every other male in the family as opposed to breaking out and following personal aspirations or abilities; the very real class structure and the narrow constraints of behaviour and activities acceptable for members of each class.

The early school scenes produce plenty of laughs of recognition at the clichés trotted out by both pupils and teachers, such as the tuneless muttering along to the hymn by the boys in school assembly and the head teacher's complaint that "the bell is for my benefit, not for yours!" However the family and school setup scenes, as entertaining as many of them are, take rather a long time, and the story of Billy and his kestrel Kes, which initially appears as a story told by Billy in an English lesson, does not begin until around two-thirds of the way through the first act. The play as a whole often seems to amble from one event to the next rather than building up, which is not necessarily a bad thing but does sacrifice to some extent the emotional involvement of the audience. However it still manages to keep the attention and remains entertaining throughout, plus it touches on some interesting issues to do with families, education, class and breaking free of a society's expectations, many of which still have some relevance - although anything that mentions a coal industry in the UK now is bound to come across as a period piece.

This production has a large company of seventeen actors, and six of these play two, three or four characters. The playing of the teenage boys is excellent, and rarely, if ever, do they come across as adults playing children. This is especially true of Andrew Garfield as Billy: he plays him as the sort of boy that every school will recognise as someone who appears during school time to be a complete waste of space but who may well have a talent or a passion that the education system would never find or even be interested in. Becky Hurst's set design is simple but effective, turning the acting space into a patchy field with a green hill at one end that tables, chairs and a few other objects are added to to suggest different locations. Pete Rice utilises the theatre's TiMax sound matrix system beautifully in his sound design; it is difficult to stop yourself from turning to look as the sound of the kestrel soars around the theatre.

This is an entertaining, well-performed production that should not disappoint the book's many fans of all ages.

"Kes" runs until 16 October 2004

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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