Pity poor Billy Casper, the council estate urchin destined for the scrap-heap in Barry Hines’ inspirational 1960s novel about his remarkable empathy with a kestrel that symbolises his own potential to fly high before his wings are clipped. Robert Alan Evans’ two-actor stage version was originally commissioned by the Catherine Wheels company, and Lu Kemp’s new production doesn’t pull any punches in getting to the gritty heart of Billy’s life in a day in a depressed Yorkshire mining town.
The bird he names Kes is the only salvation from a bullying brother, a fly-by-night mother and a series of sadistic school-teachers. All these and more are played by Matthew Barker, who both interacts with and watches over Danny Hughes’ Billy with the faraway melancholy of a northern soul’s future self, looking back at all the what-might-have-beens.
It’s a heartbreakingly realised study of crushed dreams and low expectations brought vividly to life on Kenneth MacLeod’s bleak industrial set. As Billy scampers his way to oblivion over a wild and breathless hour, the bird’s flight is magically evoked by Lizzie Powell’s flickering lighting and Matt Padden’s richly textured sound design.
Barker and Hughes avoid sentimentalism in a series of brutal and brilliant exchanges that lay bare Billy’s entire family as representatives of an underclass tethered to their lot by poor education, near slum living and almost zero job prospects beyond a life underground. In this sense, while the words and music on show betray the story’s origins as a period piece, given the current state we’re in, the echoes down the fifty years since Hines’ story first appeared ring uncomfortably familiar.
Billy’s generation would come of age in a world where the phrase ‘no future’ would take on a whole new meaning. Yet by the end of the play, his destiny has already been defined in a play where he might be thrown out with the rubbish, but, as the last scene shows, may learn to fly yet.
The Herald, November 11th 2019