Pilot Theatre welcomes £1.57bn arts aid package but calls for fair share all round

On yer bike: Nigar Yeva, left, Aimee Powell, Olisa Odele, Kate Donnachie and Corey Campbell in Pilot Theatre’s Covid-curtailed 2020 production, Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre is calling for an “equitable approach to the distribution” of the Government’s £1.57 billion arts aid package.

This plea comes in the wake of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden hinting at priority being given to protecting “the crown jewels”, while seeking to support small-scale venues too.

All this at a time when Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under the spotlight after his General Election victory pledge to “level up” the playing field for places not called London and the South East.

In a statement released today “in response to the Government’s cultural investment announcement” under the cloak of night late on Sunday, Pilot’s joint chief executives, artistic director Esther Richardson and executive producer Amanda Smith, “welcomed the news that the UK government has put together a rescue package for arts and culture”.

“Thank you to every single person and organisation who has given time and energy to the campaigns for our industry through the most challenging period we can remember,” they said. 

Esther Richardson: Co-director of Crongton Knights and artistic director of Pilot Theatre. Picture: Robert Day

“The details of the rescue package are not yet clear, but what is clear is that there must be an equitable approach to the distribution of this funding. The committees that now take the decisions over how emergency support is shared must be representative of all our communities.”

Pilot, the pioneering resident company at York Theatre Royal,  is noted for its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, all-inclusive ethos, prompting Esther and Amanda to say: “Black, Asian, minority ethnic, disabled and LGBTQI+ leaders must be at this table as well as a healthy number of those who do not work in London, and those who can speak for the freelance workforce. 

“Children and young people and their interests must also be central, as must organisations and individuals who specialise in working with these groups.”

The chief execs urge: “This money will offer some in the sector a short-term lifeline but all who receive it should seize upon the longer-term opportunity to create work throughout the UK that is bold, imaginative and truly accessible and inclusive.

“This is a welcome gesture but only the beginning of the longer project to ensure the survival and growth of the arts in all our communities.”

Pilot Theatre were on tour with their premiere of Emteaz Hussain’s adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s young adult novel Crongton Knights when the Covid-19 shutdown intervened.

Madcap adventure: Nigar Yeva, left, Zak Douglas Aimee Powell, Olisa Odele and Khai Shaw in Pilot Theatre’s Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

Performed at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29, Crongton Knights took its audience on a night of madcap adventure as McKay and his friends, The Magnificent Six, encountered the dangers and ultimate triumphs of a mission gone awry.

In this story of how lessons learned the hard way can bring you closer together, the pulse of the city was 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, said he was “very proud” of Pilot Theatre adapting his novel 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.”

During lockdown, Pilot launched the webcast premiere of their co-production with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Derby Theatre and York Theatre Royal online for free on April 22, the night when Richardson and Corey Campbell’s show  would have been opening its London run at Theatre Peckham.

Last year, Pilot and the York, Derby and Coventry theatres, together with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, launched a partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences. During the four-year cycle from 2019 to 2022, the consortium will commission and co-produce four original mid-scale productions. 

York Theatre Royal goes digital for Suffragette stream of Everything Is Possible protest play

Suffragette city: Women on the protest march in Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Minster Plaza in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

YORK Theatre Royal will stream the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes for free on YouTube from May 6.

Co-produced with Theatre Royal company-in-residence Pilot Theatre, this large-scale production was performed by a community cast of 150 and a choir of 80 from June 20 to July 1 that summer.

Set in early 20th century York, Juliet Forster and Katie Posner’s production began with Suffragette protest scenes and rallying calls on the plaza outside York Minster before moving indoors to the Theatre Royal’s main stage.

Leading professional actress Barbara Marten, who lives in York, played the lead role of Annie Seymour Pearson, a Heworth housewife who risked her life in 1913 to fight for women’s right to vote as women across the country, outraged by inequality and prejudice, began to rise up and demand change.

Barbara Marten as York Suffragette campaigner Annie Seymour Pearson at York Theatre Royal in June 2017.
Picture: Anthony Robling

Annie began her involvement in the Suffragette movement as an ordinary, middle-class housewife in a church-going family with a middle-management husband and three children.

She also was part of the Primrose League, who went out canvassing among women like themselves to influence them into urging their husbands to vote for certain candidates for election.

Yet you would struggle to find outward acknowledgment in York of Annie Seymour Pearson’s place in the city’s social history. “The house in Heworth Green, where she ran a safe house, no longer stands and there’s no blue plaque,” said Barbara at the start of rehearsals in late-May 2017. “Even her obituary made no mention of her having been a Suffragette.

“It’s interesting to choose Annie as a central character because she was such a genteel, respectable woman who didn’t start out as a militant, but various events propelled her forward.”

Barbara Marten, the one professional in the community cast of 150, in rehearsal for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Not least, Annie was arrested in January 1913 when a union deputation of York Suffragettes headed to London as thousands of women converged on the capital to protest at the poverty that many women were living through.

“Annie was arrested for obstruction, just for walking on the pavement, and the charge was ‘obstruction’ simply because there were so many women there,” said Barbara.

“She was charged 40 shillings for her offence or three weeks in prison and she wrote to her husband to say that she would not pay her fine, but she would serve her sentence and was prepared to be imprisoned again.

“She’s there in prison for two days, when her husband comes down to London and pays the fine – and you can imagine the scene when she got home.”

Barbara Marten as Annie Seymour Pearson: wife, mother, Suffragette. Picture: Anthony Robling

Everything Is Possible highlighted how the Suffragette movement was not solely a London movement. “Instead, it was made up of women from all over the country, like in Manchester and Leeds, where lots of women worked in factories, and in York as well,” said Barbara. “Scarborough was very militant too.”

The 2017 “protest play” recalled how women in York ran safe houses, organised meetings, smashed windows and fire-bombed pillar boxes, the production telling the story of their dangerous, exhilarating and ground-breaking actions for the first time.

York playwright Bridget Foreman, who wrote Everything Is Possible, says of the timing of next month’s streaming: “It’s really poignant, in the midst of isolation and social distancing, to think about the making of Everything Is Possible; the extraordinary coming together of hundreds of local people, and the staging of huge crowd scenes both on the York Theatre Royal stage and outside York Minster.

“And now the stage is dark and the streets are empty. But looking back to the way in which that show brought people together, inspiring them in so many ways, is a wonderful reminder of the power of theatre and community.”

Playwright Bridget Foreman at the read-through for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: John Saunders

Bridget continues: “We saw participants and audience members getting involved with theatre, politics, activism, local history, family research. Now, I really hope that people watching the production digitally will find their own inspiration, their own vision and energy for engaging with and changing the world when we come through this crisis.”

Directed by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Posner, now co-artistic director of Paines Plough in London, Everything Is Possiblewaspart of the Theatre Royal’s 2017 season Of Women Born, curated by a team of women to focus on work made and led by female artists, built around women’s stories.

Everything Is Possible can be streamed online on the Theatre Royal’s YouTube channel from 7pm on Wednesday, May 6 to Sunday, May 31. In the run-up to the streaming, the Theatre Royal will be sharing messages on social media from the volunteers who helped bring this production to the stage.

“These responses from the theatre’s community, promoted by the question ‘What does ‘everything is possible’ mean to you right now?’, aims to spread messages of hope and courage to the wider York community during the Coronavirus pandemic,” says marketing officer Olivia Potter.

The full cast and choir for Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes on the York Theatre Royal stage in June 2017. Picture: Anthony Robling

The Theatre Royal is asking viewers to support the stream by making an online or text donation, “so that York Theatre Royal can continue to engage and entertain the York community in the future”.

The Everything Is Possible online stream is part of the theatre’s Collective Acts programme of creative community engagement, taking place while the building is closed under the Coronavirus pandemic strictures.

Further details on the Everything Is Possible online stream and Collective Acts can be found at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Deeds not words: Suffragette protesters leave the York Minster Plaza to make their way to York Theatre Royal in the 2017 community play Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

REVIEW: Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, at York Theatre Royal and York Minster Plaza, from The Press, York, June 23 2017.

DAMIAN Cruden has no hesitation in naming his greatest achievement in his 20 years as artistic director at York Theatre Royal: the rise and rise of the community play.

The city already had the York Mystery Plys, the street plays staged in myriad forms through the centuries, and when Cruden and Riding Lights’ Paul Burbridge directed the 2012 plays on their return to the Museum Gardens, a template was established for the series of community productions that has ensued.

Each has told a chapter of York’s history: the chocolate industry in the dark shadow of the First World War in Blood + Chocolate on the city streets; the rise and fall of the Railway King, George Hudson, in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and now the York Suffragettes in Everything Is Possible, outside the Minster and in the Theatre Royal’s main house.

Street protest: One of the modern-day protesters in the opening scenes from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

A rabble noise swells from the Minster Plaza, a canny way to make the city aware that a major production of political dimensions involving more than 300 people is taking place in their midst at a time when the political landscape is more divisive and more inflammatory than for years. The scene, a throng of rebel songs and impassioned speeches, replicates demonstrations of yore, suddenly suffused by placard-waving Suffragettes in 1913 attire, followed by policemen forcibly breaking up the crowd.

The likes of Sophie Walmsley on her acoustic guitar need to placed higher above the crowd, but where Barbara Marten’s Annie Seymour Pearson takes her place on the Plaza steps is a better sight line.

“Deeds Not Words” say the placards: a mantra that wholly applies to how these community plays are mounted, volunteers to the fore on and off stage, this time under the guidance of a professional production team led by the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Katie Posner

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal associate director, co-director of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes

Once we are ushered by the coppers to the theatre, there is a little lull for chatter and drinks refuelling before Bridget Foreman’s account of the previously untold story of York’s involvement in the Suffragette movement circa 1913 has its day and has its say.

Marten and Suffragettes historian Professor Krista Cowman have played significant parts in bringing the story to the stage, so too have Foreman and a research team, and now at last the role of Annie Seymour Pearson and her Suffragette safe house at 14, Heworth Green, next to the home of anti-Suffragette campaigner Edith Milner, has its rightful place in the city’s history.

Barbara Marten might strike some in the audience as being a little old for her role as a mother of four young children, but Foreman places her as much in the role of a narrator looking back on the events of a century ago as that of protagonist in the drama, and all of Marten’s passion for the story, as well as her celebrated acting skills come to the fore.

A scene from Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

York, it must be said, played rather less of a central role in the Suffragette drive for votes for women than it did in this year’s General Election with its visits by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, it played not even second fiddle to London and Leeds, but Emmeline Pankhurst (Liz Elsworth), leader of the British suffragette movement, made a speech here that forms the climax of the first half; leading Leeds campaigner Leonora Cohen (Loretta Smith) visited too, as did Lilian Lenton, the wild-card London arsonist, played by the breakthrough new talent of this show, University of York student Annabel Lee. A firecracker indeed, a professional career surely awaits.

Annie’s arrest in London for obstructing a policeman – when he had been the one to inflict a bloody nose – and the militant activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union in York, led by Jo Smith’s Violet Key Jones, are prominent in the play, A silent movie-style film sequence linked to live action shows the full horror of the prison practice of force-feeding hunger-strikers, showing off Sara Perks’s set to best effect too.

Rallying call: Two protesters on the York Minster Plaza at the outset of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes. Picture: Anthony Robling

Men have their place in the piece in the form of Mark France’s Arthur Seymour Pearson (rather reminiscent of the husband figure in Brief Encounter) and Rory Mulvihill’s stentorian Home Secretary.

A choir of 100 is tucked away out of sight in the gods, assembled by Madeleine Hudson to perform Ivan Stott’s folk-rooted campaigning compositions, but rightly they have their moment in the spotlight on stage at the finale.

Forster and Posner’s very lively, highly committed, educational and resolute production, peppered with anarchic humour as much as political zeal, forms the pinnacle of York Theatre Royal’s Of Woman Born season of women’s words and deeds. In straitened times for funding for the arts, Everything Is Possible affirms that anything is possible when a community comes together and turns York into Suffragette City.

Review by Charles Hutchinson. Copyright of The Press, York.

The Magnificent Six ride on as Pilot Theatre stream teen turf drama Crongton Knights

Nigar Yeva, left, Zak Douglas Aimee Powell, Olisa Odele and Khai Shaw in Pilot Theatre’s Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre will webcast the online premiere of their 2020 co-production of Crongton Knights for free from April 22.

The webcast stream will start at 6.45pm that night when Esther Richardson and Corey Campbell’s Covid-19-curtailed production would have been opening its London run at Theatre Peckham.

Emteaz Hussain’s adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s award-wining young adult novel will be available to stream online at  pilot-theatre.com/webcast until Saturday, May 9, the day that the tour’s final curtain would have fallen at Theatre Peckham. 

To coincide with the webcast, Pilot, resident company at York Theatre Royal, will put online a series of talks and question-and-answer sessions with the creative team behind Crongton Knights.

The first Pilot Connects event will be a Q&A with the show’s composer and musical director, Conrad Murray, hosted by Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson on April 23 (time to be confirmed).        

Kate Donnachie, left, Nigar Yeva, Douglas Aimee, Olisa Odele and Khai Shaw in Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

Performed at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29, Crongton Knights takes its audience on a night of madcap adventure as McKay and his friends, The Magnificent Six, encounter the dangers and ultimate triumphs of a mission gone awry.

In this story of how lessons learned the hard way can bring you closer together, the pulse of the city is 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, said he was “very proud” of Pilot Theatre adapting his novel 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.” And now on a webcast stream.

Co-director Esther Richardson said 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.

Esther Richardson: Co-director of Crongton Knights and artistic director of Pilot Theatre. Picture: Robert Day

“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.

“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.”

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

During the four-year cycle, 2019 to 2022, the consortium will commission and co-produce four original mid-scale productions. 

Such co-productions are becoming all the more important against a backdrop of Esther being concerned 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 predicted.

“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.”

For more information on forthcoming Pilot Connects events, visit pilot-theatre.com/performance/current/pilot-connects/.

On yer bike: A tense stand-off in Crongton Knights

REVIEW: Crongton Knights, Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, February 25 to 29

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.

Not the end for Crongton Knights: The tour had to be curtailed but now the Pilot Theatre co-production can be streamed online from April 22 to May 9

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Pilot Theatre to revive Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal and on autumn tour

Heather Agyepong as Sephy in Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal last April . Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre will revive their award-winning 2019 production of Noughts & Crosses for an autumn tour.

This announcement comes amid the blaze of publicity for BBC One’s six-part adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel, filmed in South Africa, that began earlier this week.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage version of a modern-day Romeo & Juliet tale of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia will be directed once more by Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, whose co-production of Crongton Knights played York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29 on Pilot’s latest tour.

“We’re delighted that this show, which was nominated for best show for children and young people at UK Theatre Awards, is returning later this year,” says Esther. “It’s wonderful that even more young people can experience this production and that Pilot will be able to tour to areas of England that we haven’t visited, thanks to the support of Arts Council England.”

Class act: more than school friends Sephy (Heather Agyepong) and Callum (Billy Harris) in Noughts And Crosses last year.

Noughts & Crosses will open at the York theatre in a September 11 to 19 run before embarking on a national tour until late-November.   

Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Sephy and Callum, Blackman’s love story set in a volatile, racially segregated society, where black (the Crosses) rules over white (the Noughts), as she explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world. 

Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation for teenagers is based on Blackman’s first book in the Noughts & Crosses series for young adults, winner of the Red House Children’s Book Award and the Fantastic Fiction Award, among other accolades. 

Noughts & Crosses was produced by Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, as the first show in a new partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences. This is the consortium behind the aforementioned tour of  Emteaz Hussain’s adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

Last year, Noughts & Crosses won the Excellence in Touring award at the UK Theatre Awards, when also nominated for Best Show for Children and Young People. 

As with Crongton Knights, schools workshops and outreach projects, along with free digital learning resources, will be available alongside the autumn production of Noughts & Crosses

Casting will be announced in the coming months. Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Here is a precis of Charles Hutchinson’s review of Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal, printed in The Press, York, in April 2019.

“ESTHER Richardson proposed Noughts & Crosses when pitching for Pilot’s artistic directorship after Marcus Romer headed south, and her passion for Malorie Blackman’s twist on a Romeo & Juliet story is writ large in her telling of Sabrina Mahfouz’s electrifying adaptation.

Heather Agyepong’s Sephy in Noughts & Crosses last year

“In Blackman’s Britain, Noughts are the white underlings; no orange juice; milk only on Fridays; no mobile phones; second-rate secondary education. Crosses are the black ruling class; apartheid divisions turned on their head.

“Never the twain shall meet on equal terms, except that Nought Callum (Billy Harris), 15, and Cross Sephy (Heather Agyepong), 14, have been friends throughout childhood, meeting secretly on her family’s private beach.

Sephy’s father, Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack), is the Home Secretary; Callum’s mum, Meggie (Lisa Howard), is the Hadley family’s housekeeper. When Callum is one of three Nought teens granted a place at Sephy’s Crosses-only school, how will it affect their relationship?

“Blackman depicts a fractious, tinderbox world: Sephy’s mum Jasmine (Doreene Blackstock) is an alcoholic, neglected by her preoccupied husband; Callum’s dad Ryan (Daniel Copeland) and brother Jude (Jack Condon) are Liberation Militia freedom fighters. Callum’s sister, so damaged in an assault, has curled up in a ball ever since.

Pilot Theatre cast members in a scene in Noughts & Crosses

“As with Pilot’s first hit, Lord Of The Flies, our ability to destroy rather than create bonds, to repeatedly take the wrong turn, lies at the heart of Blackman’s damning, bleak vision that haunts us still more in intolerant Brexit Britain.

“Sephy and Callum express a wish for a better world, one where we rub along with each other, but this is a rotten Britain of death sentences, an intransigent Home Secretary, thwarted love across the divide.

“Given the bold imagination of Blackman’s novel for young adults with its heroine figure of a bright black teenage girl, you might wish she had come up with a similarly bold answer to so many ultimately familiar woes.

“Alas not, but this is nevertheless a superb production with good performances all round, plenty of punch in the direction, and high-quality set, lighting, sound, music and video design.”

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