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.

Pilot Theatre, however, always look to add something extra to the books they adapt. Noughts and Crosses stood out with a striking minimalist set; this time they make a mark with a hip-hop/beatbox performances by the cast live on stage. More interesting is their use of set. How do you stage a journey through numerous streets, flats, pubs and vehicles? The answer lies in a set that, apart from being decorated with graffiti, is purely functions. But it works – co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson ensure you never lose track of where the Magnificent Six are right now, and whilst this set might not be a the visual centrepiece it usually is, it has proven to be one of the most versatile.

However, there is a weakness to the play: I’m not convinced Crongton Knights transplants perfectly from book to stage. I’m not faulting Emteaz Hussain’s script here – I think this did as good a job as could have been done, but the pace feels a bit juddery in a two-hour theatre piece. For example, three quarters of the way through the play, the gang are almost home and stop at a party. In the book this was probably a good spot for character development, but in the play the ten or so minutes of characters chatting to each other puts the plot on pause whilst I’m thinking “get on with it”. And the twist at the end of the play goes back to events in the first fifteen minutes that have never been mentioned since. Again, that’s fine in a book where you can take in information at your own pace, but a struggle to follow as a play.

But – and this is a big but – it is only fair to acknowledge I’m not in the target audience for this play. The target audience is presumably the people who grew up in real-life North Crongs and South Crongs. The case study I have in mind here is German Skerries, set on South Gare, Teesside. I accept the thin plot of this play, were nothing happens for long stretches as a time, will put some people off. But this is where I grew up, the play got all the references spot on, and I loved it. That may well be the case it, so the people who relate to this are probably the people you ought to listen to ahead of me.

Pilot Theatre has been quite unlucky with regard to timings and lockdowns. The performance I saw at York only had a modest audience, compared to Noughts and Crosses which was close to a sell-out – I guess that York isn’t exactly Notre Dame estate territory. The strongest location on their tour was surely Peckham, but they never made it that far before it was cut short. (They did a streamed version, but that’s just not the same.) As such, I hope Pilot Theatre revives the play when the time is right and finishes the tour. Crongton Knights may be much more of a niche interest that most Pilot Theatre plays – but this deserves a chance with the audiences who’d like it the most.

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