REVIEW: Pilot Theatre’s teen drama Crongton Knights at York Theatre Royal

The cast of Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

REVIEW: Crongton Knights, Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

EVER since Lord Of The Flies, York Theatre Royal resident company Pilot Theatre have made theatre that speaks directly to young audiences.

Now, Pilot are in the second year of a four-year creative partnership with Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Derby Theatre and the Theatre Royal, their reach spreading ever wider.

Last year’s gripping adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s radical Noughts & Crosses is followed up by another topical story, Emteaz Hussain’s stage account of Crongton Knights, a young adult novel by Brixton Bard Alex Wheatle, a London writer of Jamaican parentage.

Co-directed by Corey Campbell, artistic director of Strictly Arts Theatre Company, and Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, it is a play with music, not a musical, but has the punch of West Side Story, the exhilarating beatbox and vocal score by Conrad Murray setting the story’s pulsating rhythm.

The Crongton Knights of the title are the self-styled Magnificent Six, caught up at a young age in the gangland turf wars of the Crongton Estate, divided into “North Crong” and “South Crong”, their homestead.

Into the dangerous Notre Dame estate they venture on a teen quest, a mission to rescue the mobile phone of Venetia (Aimee Powell, the show’s best singer), in the possession of her ex-boyfriend with incriminating photographs she needs to erase.

Leading them is big-hearted McKay (Olisa Odele); alongside are Jonah (Khai Shaw), Bit (Zak Douglas), Saira (Nigar Yeva) and, along for the ride, and desperate to be their lookout, Bushkid (Kate Donnachie), on her bike.

What follows is a story of “lessons learned the hard way” at the hands of those more experienced, more streetwise, more ruthless, more desperate, as represented by Simi Egbejumi-David’s ensemble roles.

In Wheatle’s words, the Magnificent Six must “confront debt, poverty, blackmail, loss, fear, the trauma of a flight from a foreign land and the omnipresent threat of gangland violence”, but the tone is not suffocatingly grim. Even in a world stacked against teens, there is hope; there is positivity; above all there is the bond of friendship.

Pilot’s press release talked of a madcap adventure, and Simon Kenny’s graffiti-painted, rainbow-coloured, scaffolded set design plays to that spirit, especially when garage lock-up doors open up to show the Magnificent Six running in slow motion. Imagine a cartoon crossed with the black comedy drama of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

Not all the dialogue is as clear as it could be, and nor is the story’s passage, but the highly energised performances, especially by Odele and Powell, are terrific, and special praise goes to Dale Mathurin for stepping into the role of Nesta with only two hot-housed days of rehearsals.

Richard G Jones’s lighting and Adam P McCready’s sound design are important too, both complementing the urban wasteland of troubled teens trying to find their place when so much is barren.

Charles Hutchinson

Gangland teens find voice in Pilot Theatre’s inner-city drama Crongton Knights

The Magnificent Six in Crongton Knights at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29. Pictures: Robert Day

YORK Theatre Royal resident company Pilot Theatre are following up last year’s powerful adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses with another topical collaboration.

Pilot have teamed up with Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre to present Emteaz Hussain’s new staging of Alex Wheatle’s award-winning young adult novel Crongton Knights.

Co-directed by Corey Campbell, artistic director of Strictly Arts Theatre Company, and Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, the touring world premiere will play the Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29.

Wheatle’s story depicts how life is not easy on the Crongton Estate and for McKay and his mates what matters is keeping their heads down. When a friend finds herself in trouble, however, they set out on a mission that goes further than any of them imagined.

Crongton Knights will “take you on a night of madcap adventure as McKay and his friends, The Magnificent Six, encounter the dangers and triumphs of a mission gone awry”.

Esther Richardson: Crongton Knights co-director and Pilot Theatre artistic director

In this story of how lessons learned the hard way can bring you closer together, the pulse of the city will be brought to life on stage with a Conrad Murray soundscape of beatboxing and vocals laid down by the cast of Kate Donnachie; Zak Douglas; Simi Egbejumi-David; Nigar Yeva; Olisa Odele; Aimee Powell; Khai Shaw and Marcel White.

Wheatle, a writer born in London to Jamaican parents, says: “I’m very proud that Pilot Theatre are adapting my novel, Crongton Knights, for the stage. It’s 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.

“The dialogue I created for this award-winning novel deserves a platform and I, for one, can’t wait to see the characters that have lived in my head for a number of years leap out of my mind and on to a stage near you.”

Co-director Esther Richardson says of the teen quest story: “For us, this play is a lens through which to explore the complexity of young people’s lives, open a platform for those concerns and show what they have to try to navigate fairly invisibly to other members of society. It’s the context in which they live that creates the problem, and these kids go under the radar.

“Alex is writing about how the world is stacked against teenagers; how young people have been thrown to the dogs; how they to negotiate this No Man’s Land they live in, when their places have been closed down; their spaces to express themselves.

On the wall: The Crongton Knights cast

“They have been victims of austerity – as have disabled people – so it’s no surprise that there’s been a rise in knife crime, with kids on the streets and no youth workers to go to, to talk about their feelings.”

Esther notes how they have no access to the arts either. “That’s why our job becomes very important, especially the work we do with theatres around the country, such as the Young and Talented theatre workshops, working with kids in inner-city London who otherwise would have no involvement in the arts,” she says.

“It’s a very heavily subsidised actor-training scheme for children aged five or six upwards, and cast members for plays like Crongton Knights can come through the scheme.”

Esther is concerned, however, by the cuts in arts funding and the potential negative impact of Brexit too. “Theatre is not seen as an opportunity to thrive in, especially in this post-Brexit landscape where it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she predicts.

“That’s why we will further shift into co-creating pieces, Pilot creating work with communities, Pilot co-creating with teens, which we do already do, but we can do it better and do it more.”

On yer bike: A tense scene in Crongton Knights

Significantly, Crongton Knights is the second of four co-productions between Pilot Theatre, Derby Theatre, the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and York Theatre Royal, who last year formed – together with the Mercury Theatre in Colchester – a new new partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences.

From 2019-2022, the consortium will commission and co-produce an original mid-scale touring production each year that will play in all the consortium venues as well as touring nationally.  The consortium’s debut production, Noughts & Crosses, was seen by more than 30,000 people on tour with 40 per cent of the audience being aged under 20.

To reflect the diversity of the consortium partners and the universality of Crongton Knights’ theme, Esther says: “Although there’s an estate in London called Notre Dame, which features in the book and the play, we have very much created a fictionalised inner city in the play, as Corey and I felt we wanted regional as well as London voices in the cast.

“So, our inner-city world is neither London, nor Birmingham, nor Coventry; it’s everywhere from the perspective of teenagers.”

Pilot Theatre and partners present Crongton Knights, York Theatre Royal, February 25 to 29, 7.30pm nightly plus 2pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guidance: 11 plus; show contains strong language.

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