KES has been touching hearts and minds for more than 40 years, so there’s clearly something magical about this simple tale of a teenage boy and the bird of prey he finds and trains.
Written by Barry Hines in 1968 and turned into a British cinema classic two years later by Ken Loach (the perfect director to capture its grit and warmth) Kes now jumps mediums again to enchant Derby Theatre audiences.
It’s a well-judged second home-produced show for the theatre’s new artistic director Sarah Brigham – a play with wide appeal, which will fit in with school curriculums and which offers opportunities for young local talent to appear on the professional stage.
Sarah’s production is a fluid, well-paced show, where the quick march from scene to scene is achieved with a lovely flow.
Barney George’s design is also a joy - both easy on the eye and delightfully funcional as we flip from terraced home to shop to school to open fields.
At the heart of it all is Sam Jackson as 15-year old Billy, a boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Scarred by his dad’s abandonment, the Barnsley lad is left with an uncaring mother (Samantha Seager) and an abusive older brother (Jimmy Fairhurst). At school he’s dragged into petty crime by his dubious mates and is regularly caned by the out-of-touch head (Paul Clarkson).
Billy faces leaving education in a few weeks, possibly for a life down the pit, but finds a ray of hope as he trains his beloved kestrel.
The use of video projections enhances the symbolism of Kes as the untamed free spirit of Billy, flying above his troubles. But it’s the natural and heart-tugging performance of Jackson, still not out of his teens, that is the keynote of this production. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding role and the fact that we end up investing so much emotion in Billy is to Jackson’s great credit. There’s quality support too, notably from two more young players (John Holt-Roberts and Thomas Pickles) as two of Billy’s classmates.
It all helps this Kes to cast off the long shadow of the Loach film and to find a telling voice of its own.
Kes is at Derby Theatre until October 5. Tickets are £10.50-£25.50 (concessions available) on 01332 593939 or at www.derbytheatre.co.uk.