★★★ | Kes, Doncaster Cast Theatre

In a small, northern working class community in the 1960s, Billy Casper’s life is not the easiest. He struggles with reading and writing, is picked on at school, bullied by his older brother and neglected by his uncaring mother. With nothing in his future but the prospect of leaving school and working in the coal mine, his future is bleak. When Billy finds and trains a wild kestrel, his life begins to find a purpose and meaning. But the cruelty of life strikes him a devastating blow.

Produced by Cast Theatre and combining a mix of professional actors and amateur performers from the area, this new production of Barry Hines’ classic novel was adapted and performed to mark Cast Theatre’s first birthday.

Jacob James Beswick stood out as young Billy Casper, looking every bit the part of the downtrodden youngster and filling the character with a balance of dread, pessimism towards the future and occasional glimmers of optimism. Beswick garnered a genuine empathy from the audience, especially during the shows closing scenes. Sally Carman, best known as Kelly McGuire in Shameless, was in familiar territory with her performance as Mrs Casper, and the incredibly handsome Ben Burman rounded off the family as vindictive half-brother, Jud. The majority of the cast were made up of amateur performers, making this local theatre in more ways than one and providing a cast who, as a whole, were pleasingly slick and polished and who had clearly honed their skills with the assistance of their professional contemporaries.

The set was detailed, using a combination of projected backdrops and sliding panels to create different parts of the town, keeping the presentation simple but effective. The transitions between scenes were smoothly done and the original music, composed by Dom Coyote, added just the right amount of atmosphere. The lighting was kept low key, complementing the play’s gritty and dark subject matter and the story nicely gathered pace as it progressed. However, even in the intimate theatre space, the lack of microphones led to a few moments where it was difficult to hear what was being said, but this is a minor criticism of the production overall. The show has occasional moments of light humour, which were a welcome relief but which never detracted from the story or mood of the piece and the handful of local references added a nice touch. The show was engaging, enjoyable and a worthy choice and adaptation to celebrate the success of the theatre over the last 12 months.

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Kes is currently playing at Doncaster Cast until the 13th September 2014. Tickets can be booked online at http://castindoncaster.com , in person at the box office or on the telephone on 01302 303959.