Crongton Knights is a modern-day quest story akin to The Wizard of Oz but with all the innocence and Hollywood Technicolour removed. It’s based on the second book of the trilogy of YA stories written by Alex Wheatle, MBE. And follows a group of young friends as they leave the safety of their neighbourhood ‘Ends’ to go on a mission that’s full of risk, danger and adventure.
The new show, from Pilot Theatre, opens with a slick a cappella rendition of ‘We are the Magnificent Six’ accompanied only by ‘beat boxing’. The action takes place in one night and the piece lasts just under two hours with an interval.
‘The Magnificent Six’ are from different cultural backgrounds but unite in their shared love of food; music and each other. They’ve also all experienced loss of some kind, be it the untimely loss of a next of kin, or the potential loss through parental divorce. Add to this mix – the urban underbelly of gang violence and these ‘youngers’ look as though they have all the cards stacked against them. Thankfully their antidote to this bleak slice of hopelessness is also their greatest strength – loyalty and friendship.
Venetia’s (Aimee Powell) phone has been stolen. It contains ‘inappropriate’ pictures of her and she must get it back before its contents are leaked on to social media. Saira (Nigar Yeva) recruits the Magnificent Six to get it back. But there is one further problem – the phone is in the hands of Venetia’s ‘ex-boyfriend’, at the Notre Dame estate – an area troubled by gang violence.
In a parallel storyline, Mckay (Olisa Odele), another of the Magnificent Six, has an older brother, Nesta (Dale Mathurin) who was mugged and put his attacker, Festus (Simi Egbeumi-David) in hospital. Festus recovers and as is the ‘code of the streets’ must have his vengeance. Nesta is now on the run but a chance meeting between Festus and Magnificent Six (including Mckay) takes a further dramatic turn when McKay is used as a hostage to lure Nesta into a trap. Will the gang survive? Will the threat of gang retribution thwart their mission?
Olisa Odele as Mckay and Dale Mathurin as Nesta add weight to this piece, delivering welcome performances as brothers potentially destined for lives on differing sides of the track. It’s this dichotomy that drives the play.
The struggles faced by The Six only serve to draw them closer together. These are teenagers making decisions, in an environment choked by machismo, knives, guns and turf war politics.
In act two the Magnificent Six have rebranded themselves as the ‘Crongton Knights’. We witness both their highs and the lows as they charge through graffiti-covered estates, with lifts infested by ‘God knows what’. This is aptly captured in the set design – an economical and box shaped, Tardis like construction sits centre stage and acts as a stairwell; public transport; and various apartment block interiors.
Emteaz Hussian’s adaptation of Wheatle’s novel is laced with crisp, vibrant and energetic language; holding a mirror up to how a generation speaks today. This is complemented by Conrad Murray’s beatbox beats, weaved through the piece. The songs move the story forward and don’t feel forced.
Where this play does perhaps struggle (and it does so understandably) is in its ambition. It simply tries to cover too much ground and is as a result, probably around 20 minutes too long. Topics covered included male gang violence; female gang violence; county lines; ‘sexting’, bullying, depression, middle eastern politics, poverty and inner-city riots. And every member of the Six has a back story to be resolved.
This play does most things reasonably well. I suspect it’s only reasonably well because the piece’s real objective was its ‘message’. This is a cautionary tale. A cautionary tale for children. As I looked around the audience, I could see that a significant proportion were adolescents. This is significant as we laughed at different points in the piece. We probably took away different messages too. To that section of the audience the themes being addressed are a present-day (or potential) reality – and seeing their heroes and heroines make sense of their predicaments and take responsibility for their actions should resonate more when the protagonists look like you; share your experience; or are your age group.
On the whole Crongton Knights is a welcome contribution because it shines a light on voices often under-represented in mainstream theatre; and may encourage a more diverse population to attend and create their own blend of theatre.★ ★ ★
Crongton Knights is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 10 to 13 March 2020.
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