Theatre reviews: Kes | Hope and Joy | Thank You Very Much

Danny Hughes in Kes at Perth Theatre
Danny Hughes in Kes at Perth Theatre
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A beat of wings; and in Scottish theatre this week it’s the sound of a profound change in the relationship between humankind and the other creatures with whom we share our world. It is more than 50 years since Barry Hines published his magnificent story A Kestrel for a Knave, a grim vision of post-war working-class England in which a boy called Billy Casper, hopelessly bullied and dismissed by everyone around him, finds joy and a sense of freedom in rearing a beautiful young kestrel he calls Kes. 

Kes, Perth Theatre ****

Hope and Joy, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Thank You Very Much, Couper Institute, Glasgow ****

Yet despite its setting in a small town dominated by a coal industry now long gone, Robert Alan Evans’s intense one-hour stage version – first seen in Scotland in 2011 and now powerfully revived in Perth’s Joan Knight Studio – has a fiercely contemporary resonance as it exposes the macho misery of a society riven by class and gender, and based on the ruthless crushing of both nature and humanity.

Director Lu Kemp places her lucid and passionate production on a powerful set by Kenneth Macleod, ringed with corrugated iron fencing, full of nooks and crannies where a boy can hide, and brilliantly side-lit by Lizzie Powell, with a tremendous soundscape by Matt Padden.

Matthew Barker is superb as the older Billy and every other adult in the story, conjuring up in seconds the dark sarcasm of the 1960s classroom, or the visceral detestation of young “neds” that was such a marked part of British post-war culture. Danny Hughes is heartstoppingly complex and moving as young Billy, briefly transformed by the thing he loves; in a glimpse of Hines’ story that is as brilliant, beautiful and complete as it is brief and intense.

There’s a mighty sound of wings, too, in Ellie Stewart’s gorgeously surreal and disturbing Hope and Joy, the debut production from new touring company Pearlfisher, in association with Stellar Quines. Stewart’s story begins in a maternity ward, where Hope (played with fine absurdist flair by Kim Gerard) is about to give birth, helped along by Beth Marshall’s friendly and mercifully unflappable hospital cleaner, Joy.

The child that emerges, though, is not so much a baby as a large and beautiful egg, the result of a brief liaison between Hope and a memorably graceful male swan; and in no time we find ourselves fast-forwarded into a world where Hope’s winged son Magnus is no longer unique and where the idea of humankind as a species is beginning to morph into something much more fluid.

Stewart’s 60-minute play, directed to perfection by Caitlin Skinner, handles this mind-blowing idea brilliantly, sustaining a perfect balance between the absurdist comedy in which Hope’s struggle with her strange offspring is a perfect timeless metaphor for motherhood and the visionary stage poem that captures a moment when our relationship with other species must shift profoundly, if we are to survive at all. And with a gorgeous spindly-woodland set by Becky Minto, lighting by Emma Jones, sound by Susan Bear and movement by Amy Kennedy, Pearlfisher has succeeded in creating a true, rich women’s comedy for our time, adored by everyone in the audience, from babies to grandparents, at Saturday’s relaxed afternoon performance in the Traverse.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, the wonderful international theatre-maker and performer Claire Cunningham continues her own exploration of changing ideas about normality and humanity with her acclaimed show Thank You Very Much, commissioned jointly by Manchester International Festival, where it premiered in July, and the National Theatre of Scotland.

There are whole theses to be written about Cunningham’s fascinating work on this show, in which she works with three other artists with disability – Dan Daw, Tanja Erhart and Vicky Malin – and a group of five professional Elvis impersonators (who appear only as recorded voices) to analyse the range of movements and stances Elvis Presley used in performance, many of them considered utterly weird, shocking or “alien” at the time.

Thank You Very Much is also, though, a terrific 90-minute “good night out”, lifted throughout by Cunningham’s fierce, witty presence, her fine singing voice and the glowing brilliance and commitment of her three fellow-performers.

And when she finally drifts round the cafe tables of Bethany Wells’ set, bidding farewell to the audience with a round of I Cant Help Falling in Love With You, the applause rolls on and on; at least until Elvis has left the building and disappeared into the Glasgow night. Joyce McMillan

Kes at Perth Theatre until 16 November. Hope and Joy on tour until 15 November. Thank You Very Much, run ended.