Barry Hines’ canonical tale of one lad and his kestrel might be a byword for no-frills Northern misery, but Lu Kemp‘s production for Perth Theatre is a slick, highly stylised affair. The mucky post-industrial backdrop glows like a furnace, thanks to Lizzie Powell’s lighting. A tense soundscape (by Matt Padden) electrifies the air. And our cast of two (Danny Hughes as Billy and Matthew Barker as everyone else) weave their way through the multi-level set, turning falconry and street chases into beautiful choreography. We might not see an actual bird, but we feel its presence right enough with a loud flapping of wings, strobing lights and looks of wonder across faces.
What it gains in theatrical bells and whistles though, it loses in social realism. This is not a grey and grimy Yorkshire, it’s a more wholesome, generic North. We don’t feel the chill of the streets, the cold shower or the cold bedroom; Billy Casper has colour in his cheeks, a spring in his step and unexpectedly modern clobber. And even with a smattering of thees and thas, the dialect’s dialled down to mainstream TV levels. Accents sometimes skip across the Pennines and Yorkshire glottal stops get missed. Billy’s Mum is a Coronation Street matriarch (or maybe, given it’s a bloke playing her, a touch League of Gentleman-y), brother Jud has some Northern Soul swagger, and both bear influences of Northern drama other than the source material.
The two actors work their roles well, producing fluid and dynamic scenes, but the dialogue they’ve been given by Robert Alan Evans’ adaptation is too performative, too theatrical for such an earthy story. Key scenes like Billy’s caning don’t benefit from being played big. The power is in the mundanity of it.
This refining of plot and characters has a knock-on effect for the tragic conclusion too, which is felt less deeply. The edge has been taken off the coarseness and casual brutality of the original by the manner of presentation. While David Bradley’s shiftless Billy in the Ken Loach film looks like he may never recover from it, Hughes’ Billy looks much more robust.
Matthew Barker is also given far too much to do by the script. Not only does he play every character but Billy, he also acts as an unnamed older male ‘guide’ for Billy, taken to be his older self. Barker’s a confident presence and actually deals with this workload very well, but it knocks the play out of balance to have him pedalling so hard around the central character.
Top marks for the high production standards, then, but it comes at a cost to emotional impact. This kitchen sink is way too clean.