TAKING on the role of a much-loved character is hard enough for any actor but when that role is your first professional job the pressure really ramps up.

But if Jake Dunn is feeling the pressure of playing Billy Casper in a new version of Kes which is currently at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre, he’s coping with it remarkably well.

“There’s this fun duality of it being both equally terrifying and exciting at the same time,” said Jake, a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “I mean it’s Billy Casper and playing him in the north. The whole story of Kes means a lot to a lot of people There is something quite sadistic about being excited by that as well as being scared.”

This new production produced by the Octagon and the Theatre By The Lake at Keswick is a reworking of a story which has fascinated book lovers and filmgoers for more than 50 years. Set in Sixties’ Yorkshire Billy is a bullied and neglected teenager who finds beauty and escape in a fledgling kestrel which he adopts and trains.

Although Kes is something many people will have studied at school, Jake didn’t do so.

“I saw the film when I was young and I remember being devastated by what happened to Kes,” he said. “I don’t think you are ever old enough not to be traumatised by seeing it for the first time.”


This stage production is not a copy of the film nor does it directly follow the book.

“The production is very different to both in many respects,” said Jake, “although the essential story remains. The script is more a meditation about grief and loss and trauma and I also think that it’s perhaps more hopeful than the film.

“We’re looking at Billy’s life as a 15-year-old through a lens of memory and what people like his mum and his brother meant to him.

“I have to remind myself that it’s not about seeing something we’ve seen before. I’m a different Billy from the one people will remember from the screen version or even the book. It is a new interpretation.”

Although Kes the adopted kestrel is integral to the story, Jake is quick to point out no birds of prey will be flying around the theatre.

“I think we’d blow the budget and more if we got a kestrel in,” he laughed. “But it’s the question everyone asks. The thing is whenever you get an animal on stage the audience doesn’t care what the actors are doing and you suspect that everyone is waiting for that animal to misbehave.

“I did a play with a dog in it and that was stressful enough. So I hope it won’t put anyone off from buying a ticket but there isn’t a real life kestrel in this version of Kes.”

At 22, Jake is having to become a teenager again to bring Billy to life.

“It is a tough play and a really emotional play that goes to intense places at times but I don’t look at it as trying to play to a certain age,” he said. “It’s more about how it feels to be 15. I think at that age your moral compass is perhaps more defined, you have a very strong vision of what is right and wrong.

“When things are good they are the most amazing things and when they are bad they are the worst things possible at that age. You are also far more volatile and can go from being sensitive to ferocious very quickly and that’s certainly true with Billy.”

Although a real life kestrel doesn’t feature in the production, Jake has researched falconry and in doing so has discovered a love for birds he never knew he had.

“I didn’t know anything about birds; I wasn’t interested in them,” he said. “Then before rehearsals started I spent an afternoon with a falconer and I’ve become obsessed with birds - I think they are incredible creatures.

“When you come face to face with a bird of prey they command such respect, it’s almost like they can see through you. I can totally see why Billy falls in love with this bird.”

Originally from Nottingham Jake has been working hard on his Yorkshire accent.

“We have had a great dialect coach and every day I have repeatedly been saying the months of the year in a Yorkshire accent which has been my way into it,” he said. “Being from Nottingham I do say ‘bath’ not ‘barth’ anyway so that’s halfway there!”

Jake is hoping that audiences will take something special away from the production.

“I think people will be surprised,” he said. “Yes it’s the story of a boy who is troubled and neglected but he doesn’t necessarily know that. Through Kes he gets to experience joy and that’s a memory which will stay with him.”

Kes is at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, until Saturday, April 2. Details from www.octagonbolton.co.uk. It then goes to the Theatre by the Lake, Keswick from April 6 to 30. Details from www.theatrebythelake.com