As I collected my press ticket from the box office, a rather severe woman in the queue prodded me in the chest and said theyre only kids doing this show, so you be nice or youll have me to answer to. Which rather constitutes bullying, Id have thought.
Which is ironic, because that is the theme that Beacon Theatre Group have chosen to emphasise in this adaptation of Barry Hines novel, A Kestrel For A Knave. Better known as the 1968 feature film Kes, it tells the story of 13-year-old Billy Casper, a young working class boy in Barnsley who is badly bullied at home and school, and only finds comfort when he discovers and trains a kestrel.
The finger-prodding lady neednt have worried. The opening was stunningly choreographed, the large cast collectively bullying Billy in stylised fashion to a thumping, sinister soundtrack, and I knew that it would be easy to be nice to this production. The acting from the kids was good, especially as some of them were very young indeed, and the direction inventive. This is, however, a notoriously difficult space because the stage is almost cut in half by a large pillar. As a consequence sometimes action is masked from part of the audience. Theres a slight confusion caused by the fact than some of the kids play adults, but there are also adults in the cast (Im not sure whether I have to be nice to the adults too, so best not to comment).
These are minor irritation, however, because the company tells the moving story of how the vulnerable are let down by the system with a confidence and an energy which draws you in. Most importantly, the central performance from Christopher Hudson is astonishing. Dynamic, truthful, beautifully timed, and in the plays final moments, as he mimes cradling the one thing in his life that had ever brought him joy, utterly heart breaking.
I was unsure if the piece had been updated. Though Bobby Charlton still seems to be playing football for Manchester United, mobile phones are used to film the opening bullying, happy slapping style. Either way, its fascinating that a novel written in the sixties still has such resonance. The teachers lament the lack of discipline and drive amongst their young charges as if it is a new phenomenon, just as there is much hand wringing about similar problems today. Most strikingly, the bleak urban landscape in this play, which socialism was supposed to wash away, is still with us in so many of our inner cities, and the Billy Caspers of this world are still out there, trying to break free, to find joy, to be loved. To soar like a kestrel.