Wednesday 26th February at York Theatre Royal.
Based on Alex Wheatle’s novel and adapted here by Emteaz Hussain, Crongton Knights is a refreshing force, spotlighting young voices and experiences in a production which looks at everything from the classic glorification of friendships to gender politics and the dangerous situations which can so easily sneak up on unwitting youngsters these days.
The spontaneously self-styled Crongton Knights are a spunky band of youngsters on a mission. Venetia (Aimee Powell) has been wronged by her ex. What initially seems quite trivial becomes an excellent insight into the tech-related problems capable of crippling teenagers in their most sensitive and vulnerable years. A phone with all its content and connections is so often much more of a weapon now than anyone could have predicted years ago. So, to go off gallivanting into the most dangerous parts of this fictional city to reclaim the ultimate weapon in modern day teendom suddenly seems completely understandable. After all, it’s not like they can just grab a mum or a dad and go over there together, those clueless background grown ups don’t understand the struggles at play…
Faithful friend and tentative admirer Bit (Zak Douglas) is first on the case, willing to risk it all to right this wrong. He ropes in buddies who vary in their reluctance but ultimately give in because it really is all for one and one for all with this bunch and that’s one of the most endearing elements of the show as a whole.
We meet the thoroughly lovable McKay (Olisa Odele), the scrappy, constantly energised Saira (Nigar Yeva), the comically over-compensating Jonah (Khai Shaw) and by sheer determination, the straggler Bushkid (Kate Donnachie) who brings the classic winning features of the quirky ‘odd kid’ to the table. They’re joined by Simi Egbejumi-David and Dale Mathurin who play a variety of roles but mainly offer representatives of the slightly older young people in Crongton to sharply demonstrate the scary way attitudes towards reputation and property can escalate into life-threatening situations.
Powell and Odele shine brightest here, bringing characters centre stage that we can’t help but take to heart. Powell’s Venetia is a layered combination of remarkable strength and sympathetic vulnerability while Odele’s McKay is hilarious and unfailingly endearing with his moves always at the ready and his heart clinging tightly to his sleeve. Donnachie’s Bushkid and Yeva’s Saira offer starkly contrasting tales of woe and deliver their bombshells with great feeling. For comedic flair we have Shaw’s Jonah who excels in dashing expectations of the tough lad while Douglas is our heart of gold guy who gives the difficult task of playing concussion for laughs a winning run.
It all begins simply enough but as with most simple ‘missions’ undertaken by the young and the naive, things take some dangerous twists and turns. It’s generally pacy and well structured but it has to be said that the production has some rusty moments too. Highlights pivot on the superb physicality of the entire cast – the athletic, lithe movement in dance or simply getting about the stage is a source of great energy throughout. The sequence for McKay’s love affair with cooking is the perfect example of this production at its best; sharp, charismatic and rich with youthful physical charm and comedy. Simon Kenny’s set design is also great, providing a simple but very versatile set piece, on, in and through which our cast conjure various places.
But there are also moments which feel uncertain underfoot with either the cast seeming stronger than their material or vice versa. While it has such great heart, it gets a little too overzealously assembly-theatre in places which is a double edged sword as well as a strength. It shows that this production could do an awful lot of good in school halls but on a main stage directed at wide ranging audiences, it sometimes feels a little too heavy handed in its lessons even while it is so evidently refreshing.
Musical Director and composer Conrad Murray offers some energising musical sequences alongside the more sensitive, Dear Diary style of songs where our troubled teens can demand greater understanding. The cast showcase some fabulous musical talents too, with Powell, Odele and Donnachie being particularly strong. Too often at this particular performance though the cast were drowned out by the music, their raps disappearing inaudibly into the bass and while there are plenty of examples of excellent lyricism and some skilfully placed reprises to develop the characters and action very nicely, some of the songs feel oddly childish in their simplicity, even within the context of being sung by the young and insecure.
What really sells this show, aside from its general vibrancy of music, movement and characters, is the dynamics across the characters we meet. First and foremost they have an excellent quick-fire banter but also moral compasses of steel; their sense of social justice is a far cry from the entitlement too often blindly branding today’s young people. This is simply a heartwarming but high stakes adventure story.
Co-directed by Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson, the constant energy of the piece is truly impressive and while it feels just a tad over long, it’s generous in energy, heart and insight into the lives of today’s teens in our inner cities and beyond. Crongton Knights is certainly a welcome addition of truly fresh material on the current theatre landscape and it’s well worth being seen by the young audiences it champions through its characters.
Crongton Knights is a Pilot Theatre Production playing York Theatre Royal until February 29th 2020 and you can find tickets here.