Writer: Alex Wheatle
Adapted by: Emyeaz Hussain
Directors: Corey Campbell, Esther Richardson
Alex Wheatle’s award-winning novel Crongton Knights manages to balance many different moods and styles with great success. On the surface it presents a sordid and violent world, South and North Crongton Estates being blitzed by gang warfare, a story full of knifings, beatings and gang targets lying low, but the title has real significance. Knights are a constant in the vocabulary of the teenage protagonists – castles and drawbridges and suchlike – a diverting contrast to their own brand of contemporary street talk. And the adventure they go on is in the chivalric tradition: to save a lady’s honour.
At the centre of the story is McKay Tambo, with his much loved mother dead, his father plagued by gambling debts and his brother Nesta on a gangleader’s most wanted list. It’s Wheatle’s great gift to show that, with all the major league worries around him, not doing his homework is still an everyday problem for McKay and getting the seasoning right in his jerk chicken stir fry is a matter of major importance. Similarly he convinces us that these youngsters on the fringe of the gang culture – McKay’s friend Liccle Bit has been silly enough to hide a gun for another gang leader – are basically decent kids who are looking to stay out of trouble.
The novel fills in the background to life in the Crongs and especially the Tambo family much more comprehensively than a two-hour play can and Emteaz Hussain focuses almost totally on the major story-line of the novel, the mission to Notre Dame. Bit is sweet on Venetia and, when she needs to retrieve her phone from her older former boyfriend, he volunteers his services and those of his friends, McKay and Jonah. Unfortunately the phone contains compromising images of Venetia which she daren’t risk becoming public property; even more unfortunately the ex-boyfriend lives in Notre Dame, a distant land at the other end of the bus route which entails a perilous transit of North Crong. The attempt, despite some initial success, leads to a whole series of disastrous confrontations.
The other two members of the Magnificent Six are Saira, Venetia’s new friend with a tragic back-story in Turkey, and the character who proves to be a problem for Hussain in her adaptation. Boy from the Hills is a shyly dogged rich kid with no friends who hides behind an exaggeratedly unkempt appearance and finally earns friendship on the mission. In such an energetic adaptation and production he has had to be transformed into Bushkid, sharing some of the same qualities, but louder, wilder and female.
Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson’s production for Pilot Theatre, now embarking on a lengthy tour, crackles with life. Conrad Murray’s songs, joyous raps and soulful anthems, performed a cappella with great skill and ingenuity, are always dynamic, if not ultimately memorable. Simon Kenny’s set, with its urban bleakness intensified by Andy Clare’s graffiti, becomes a climbing frame and assault course for the athletic young cast.
As an ensemble the cast of eight could hardly be improved upon. Olisa Odele is immensely likeable as McKay and forms a drolly convincing trio with Khai Shaw (Jonah) and Zak Douglas (Bit). As one always suspected in the novel, Venetia emerges as the dominant character, Aimee Powell belting out songs and striking attitudes with fearless dominance. Kate Donnachie (Bushkid) and Nigar Yeva (Saira) do similarly, but their characters are less fully drawn. The two remaining actors are less central, but almost the best things in the play: Dale Mathurin gives Nesta a brooding intensity and Simi Egbejumi-David is a psychopath in training as his arch-enemy Festus, but both also wittily take on everything from parents to old ladies.
In the programme Alex Wheatle writes that “the theme of the narrative is friendship” – and the play has an impeccable moral centre. Also, despite a few rough edges, it is great entertainment.
Runs until 29th February 2020 and then continues touring nationwide