A 1970s mining community is the backdrop to a stark tale as Timothy Ramsden reports
Published in 1968, Barrie Hines's novel A Kestrel For A Knave is given a 1970s setting in Sarah Frankcom's production. This finds a visual equivalent for teenager Billy Caspar's flight from the failures of daily life in the kestrel he trains, but never tames.
Audiences will follow Billy's mind from the classroom as he describes his new enthusiasm. Lawrence Till's adaptation focuses on the last day of Kes's life, starting as the mining community awakes. Billy meets people - butcher, milkman, postman. They all know him, part of a small community that can be either positive or negative in its closeness.
For all the failures of his school - we're talking bottom set in a South Yorkshire secondary modern - Billy's no saint, says Frankcom: "He's a pest, a pain; he steals, has no respect for adults; he's rude to his mother. He has learning difficulties, whether through lack of support or deeper-rooted. He's not an easy boy. Not an Oliver Twist."
With Kes, Billy leaves his troublesome peer-group. "Everybody has a Kes," Frankcom says, "the part of you which, if you explore and use, it helps release your imagination and achieve extraordinary - or ordinary - things.
It's a sense of one's potential."
She describes Billy as "feral; a survivor", which he needs to be in a school with no aspiration for its pupils, other than sending them down the pit. From 2004, there's also "the terrible poignancy of the decline in the mining industry". The job for life's turned out anything but.
The only sympathetic teacher is growing jaded but Billy's enthusiasm for Kes makes this man reconsider his relation to his job. But Frankcom is sympathetic to each character. Bullying PE teacher Sugden is possibly a former pupil of the school with "a deep-seated need to be liked. He wants the boys on his side." They fear him, yet also wind him up, sensing this inner weakness.
Theatre shows the lack of physical contact between Billy and his mum. When Billy wants a hug, his mother pushes him away. Yet she's a survivor. Having two boys by different men is hard in this community.
Even Billy's older half-brother Judd can be understood. "He has a very intense relationship with his mother. He's illegitimate and never knew his father." And he resents Billy for his father leaving home. Quick to use his fists, Judd sees only a future down the pit and drinking on his collier's Friday nights. Violence is his coping strategy in a tough, survivor's world.
* Education programme includes a chance to see Ken Loach's film Kes, followed by a workshop and performance of the play from 3pm on September 16, 23 and October 7.
Tel: education officer Richard Hall on 0161 615 6780
Kes education pack available on www.royalexchange.co.uk. Click on "education", then "schools", then "features".