Author Alex Wheatle has written a trilogy of books about the tough lives of urban teenagers in the fictional area of Crongton. The middle volume, Crongton Knights, has been adapted for the stage by Emteaz Hussain; this however stands alone with no knowledge of the other two books necessary. The resulting show from Pilot Theatre (leading a consortium of local UK theatres) was set to tour and, indeed, completed performances at four of its seven intended venues. The plan was to finish in Peckham but Covid 19 intervened and instead a recording of the show was put online for the duration of the planned London run. After a break, the recording of this play with music has resurfaced.
Crongton Knights certainly hits the ground running and for the first ten minutes or so I was very grateful for the accompanying subtitles as a tricky first number introduced the various characters through beatboxing and rapping. I’m not sure how I would have fared in a theatre as the speed with which the words are delivered is a little baffling but directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson clearly decided to favour atmosphere and pace over clarity – and as this is a production clearly aimed at young people they are probably right. The plot concerns a group of South Crongton friends who are all there for each other whenever problems arise – and it would seem that this is fairly often. There is street warfare between the South and North Crongtonites (??) and even more so between them and those from the notorious Notre Dame estate, wittily named the Hunchbackers. The central figure is McKay who has a difficult family background and is certainly not your typical hero or villain – he is overweight, unsure of himself and has an ambition to work in the food industry. However, he is intensely loyal and when one of his mates is in trouble, he joins a quest to get them out of difficulties.And “quest” is the right word in this instance as the plot resembles nothing so much as a take on Arthurian legend as the Knights of the title travel through dangerous territory encountering the equivalent of monsters and ogres en route and all to help out Venetia, a damsel in distress. True, they have traded in their armour for trainers, hoodies and branded clothing and the object of their journey is not so much the Holy Grail as a mobile phone but the structure is still intact; the character BushKid even refers to her bike as “a noble steed”. By the interval the phone has been recovered but they still have to get back to base and the progress, or otherwise, towards this end forms the basis of part two. I felt that this half was far too stretched out and didn’t have the drive of act one. There is, rather predictably, a lot of soul searching and people going on personal journeys to find out more about themselves and their friends. While this gives the characters a bit of depth which might be otherwise lacking it was simply too late in proceedings to start investing emotionally in the inners lives of the characters.The self-styled “magnificent six” are well differentiated and played at a cracking pace with stand-out performances coming from Olisa Odile and Kate Donnachie as McKay and BushKid respectively. Donanachie belies the appearance of her character by having a cracking voice and Odile has a neat line in comic timing which often breaks the tension. Respect is also due to Marcel White and Simi Egbejumi-David who, as ensemble members, play a whole range of family, villains, a very creepy taxi driver and so on; if I say that I genuinely thought that there were more than two actors involved it is in acknowledgement of their transformative skills.This is the second show I have seen this week which features beatboxing (see also No Milk For The Foxes) as organised and arranged by Conrad Murray who would seem to be a big noise in this particular world (and definitely not to be confused with the personal physician of Michael Jackson who had the same name). While my ears are still getting attuned to the style’s particular demands it fits this particular production like a glove. That said, it’s probably a hard call for regular musicians who are disenfranchised in such shows. The multi-purpose design by Simon Kenny is as urban as one might expect and the rotating cube at the centre helps to give urgency to the action when it is needed; this is enhanced by sound and lighting designs of Adam McCready and Richard G Jones respectively.It’s been interesting this week to see several shows for which I don’t really feel I am part of the target audience. Crongton Knights is another such, though as it has as its core a defining national legend perhaps it is not so remote after all. Although at times I could definitely have done with an urban dictionary to hand, I have learned a whole lot of new terminology showing just how dynamic the English language has remained. Why, just recently my review of a show was branded as “sick” and I’m pleased to note that this was a compliment.
Production photos by Robert Day
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