Crongton Knights: nice but niche

Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation of a young adult book is has a narrower appeal than their usual productions, but it deserves to finish the job with the audience this play is aimed at.

The final play on my pre-lurgi catch-up list is a Pilot Theatre production. Pilot Theatre have earned my respect over successive productions for many reasons, but the biggest stand-out is the staging. It varies from play to play, but whatever they do always impresses in a way they’ve never impressed before. The subject material varies as well; last year’s Noughts and Crosses was packaged as an ordinary story of forbidden love but was in fact set an alternate world where Jim Crow laws exist in reverse. Crongton Knights, it turns out, is almost the opposite, packaged as a story of adventure and friendship akin to The Magnificent Seven (with the friends here self-styled as “The Magnificent Six”), but with the setting being a gritty housing estate in South London.

Adapted from the second of Alex Wheatle’s young adult books, five young friends embark on a mission to confront the ex-boyfriend of one of the gang to demand the return of some compromising photos. In an unfortunate twist of timing, this is the day the London riots are destined to break out, but this doesn’t actually feature much in the story. This is because although they live in the notoriously rough South Crong, they must journey to Notre Dame estate,and a typical night there makes the London Riots look like a picnic in the park. Can they make it with nothing but friendship and loyalty on their side.

Crongton Knights is a heavily character-driven story. One of the strongest themes is Bushkid. You see, this is the origin story of the Magnificent Six. Whilst the rest of the gang come from families struggling on the breadline, she lives comfortably with wealthy parents – but what she want more than anything is to fit in with friends. One character I would liked to have known more about was Saira. She is a Syrian refugee whose father is still missing, and one suspects she’s witnessed far worse horrors than anything a sink estate can muster. It would have been interesting to see how she’d react in a situation she’s desensitised to, but that doesn’t really feature in this story. Maybe the next book.

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Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

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So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution with superficial changes over difficult and complex reforms that solve the root problem – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

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