For the first dance theatre work produced by Sheffield Theatres, Kes is certainly getting the company off to an immensely strong start. Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel For A Knave, a story of 60s working class life in a Northern town, has a bleak beauty rooted in the mundane, and Jonathan Watkins’s new production brings […]

For the first dance theatre work produced by Sheffield Theatres, Kes is certainly getting the company off to an immensely strong start. Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel For A Knave, a story of 60s working class life in a Northern town, has a bleak beauty rooted in the mundane, and Jonathan Watkins’s new production brings this magnificently to the Crucible stage. Just like Hines’s sparse prose, this work conjures a lot on the barest of settings – a school hall parquet with a sketchy background of sprawling scrubby moorland and foggy high rises. The actors inhabit skeletal sets which transform from pub to school to home, bringing a claustrophobic feel to much of the action.

Kes follows the novel’s path of telling a single day in Billy Casper’s life, with flashbacks to his finding and training of the titular kestrel, a largely mundane life briefly enlivened by his moments with Kes. The piece treats its source material with a great deal of respect. Watkins clearly felt compelled to ensure as much as possible of the novel survived the journey to the stage. Translated to dance, some of this material became harder to parse, but the play doesn’t suffer for it. One re-enactment of a boy stepping into a bootful of tadpoles can’t have made sense to those not familiar with the book. It’s not a major plot point though, and in fact a surprising amount of the material shines in its dance incarnation, allowing surreal delights like a librarian’s jealous, near-erotic turn with a book cart.

The details of the school scenes in particular were a little hazy and tended to merge into long sequences of abstract movement, rich in mood, certainly, but with no great narrative drive. But any confusion here only echoes Billy’s own, letting us in on what a chore school is for him and heightening the clarity of those moments where Billy interacted with the bird, conveyed through a simple and precise puppetry which left exactly the right amount to the imagination, as Kes – here just a kite on a pole – swung over the audience so that all we saw was a bird in flight.

But some of the finest moments in Kes were those where it went beyond and elaborated on the source material, fleshing out the characters of Billy’s mother and brother. While in the novel both are largely seen through Billy’s eyes, extra touches in Watkins’s adaptation allowed us the sense of them more as fully formed characters, and helped the audience rationalise, if still not sympathise with, their crueller actions. All three leads were excellent, but Laura Caldow as Billy’s mother delivered a heartbreaking performance of a woman in a life she didn’t choose with two sons she doesn’t know how to handle. One of the most moving scenes of the piece is her struggling to keep herself together as the realities of her life close in on her.

It’s hard to find much to criticise in Kes and I’m not going to try. It’s a moving piece of work, made with a great deal of talent and care, and it is deeply gratifying to see the Crucible mount a work so rooted in the local area.

Photo by Johan Persson

Catherine Dickinson.