Known for their bold work celebrating diversity and examining contemporary issues, Pilot Theatre presents the world stage premiere of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights, Winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2016.
Life isn’t easy on the Crongton Estate and for McKay and his mates it’s all about keeping their heads down but when a friend finds herself in trouble, they set out on a mission that goes further than any of them imagined. Crongton Knights takes on a night of madcap adventure as McKay and his friends ‘The Magnificent Six’ encounter the dangers and triumphs of a mission gone awry.
Wheatle describes it as “a modern quest story where on their journey, the young diverse lead characters have to confront debt, poverty, blackmail, loss, fear, the trauma of a flight from a foreign land and the omnipresent threat of gangland violence.” Hussain picks out the key features that struck her on reading the book: “the intricate, multicultural, working class world that Alex Wheatle had vividly created. The unflinching brutality tempered by bighearted grace and the dignity afforded to the characters that I related to.” And these characters are indeed vividly realised in this vibrant show designed by Simon Kenny.
Adapted by Emteaz Hussain and co-directed by Corey Campbell (Artistic Director of Strictly Arts Theatre Company and Co-Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre for 2021) and Pilot Theatre’s Artistic Director Esther Richardson (Noughts and Crosses and Brighton Rock, Pilot Theatre), this co-production with York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre Coventry (UK Theatre Award for the Promotion of Diversity) and Derby Theatre brings the energetic, rhythmic vernacular of Wheatle’s novel even further to the fore in this slick new musical production.
Richardson’s touch is recognisable from recent Pilot productions; lightning-paced and stark in the drama. The action is fast and punchy – sometimes so much so that it’s hard to follow – with elements of energy akin to both gritty teen drama like On My Block and blue-sky kid pop like the Disney Channel. The pulse of the city is alive on stage with a soundscape of beatboxing and vocals laid down by the cast and created by acclaimed musician Conrad Murray (Frankenstein: How To Make A Monster, Battersea Arts Centre Beatbox Academy). The designer is Simon Kenny (Assassins, Nottingham Playhouse, Black Man Walking, eclipse/Royal Exchange Manchester and Sweeney Todd, Barrow Street Theatre and off-Broadway), with lighting by Richard G Jones (The Railway Children, York and London, and Sweeney Todd, Barrow Street Theatre and off-Broadway). Movement and song infuse every moment, the ensemble deftly navigating a rotating estate block, scaffolding and stairs for the duration of the night’s events, which bear the surreality of a plan gone wrong; a party outlived; hope forced to go into hiding.
The cast features Kate Donnachie (Sirens, Edinburgh Fringe ) as Bushkid; Zak Douglas (National Youth Theatre); Simi Egbejumi-David (Shit-Faced Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet, Magnificent Bastard Production and Around the World in 80 Days, Kenny Wax Family Entertainment & Simon Friend) as Festus; Nigar Yeva (Give Me, Soho Theatre) as Saira; Olisa Odele (Ola in Chewing Gum, E4 and PC Merrick in Scarborough, BBC) as McKay; Aimee Powell (Freeman, Strictly Arts and Over The Too, Belgrade Theatre) as Venetia; Khai Shaw (The Lion King, West End, Little Baby Jesus, Orange Tree Theatre ) as Jonah and Dale Mathurin (A Comedy About a Bank Robbery, West End, and Henry V, Richard II and Henry IV Part I & II, RSC) as Nesta. All are incredible performers, dialled up to eleven throughout with childlike pep, optimism and resilience. Tenacious in every aspect of life, the Magnificent Six express ultimate joy, harrowing fear, and fastidious honour. Odele’s euphoric portrayal of McKay’s love of food is a wonderful highlight of pure black joy to be found in his urban experience. Something we could all do with more of in our theatre diet, to say nothing of the enviably demonstrative friendship the group share, and their thoughtfully proactive perspective on the legal and societal systems that are supposed to protect them.
Enlightening, heartbreaking and uplifting, Crongton Knights breathes fresh life into the diversity of northern theatre for young people. It played at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday 25 – Saturday 29 February 2020. Read more about Pilot Theatre, and follow the show on tour, here.