What do you get if you bring together an award-winning YA novel, an inventive beatbox soundtrack, six courageous kids and the producing powerhouse behind 2019’s sell-out production of Noughts and Crosses? Writer and broadcaster Nick Ahad talked to novelist Alex Wheatle ahead of the premiere stage adaptation of his Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize-winning book Crongton Knights. Time to get booking!
Life isn’t easy on the Crongton Estate, and for McKay and his mates, it’s all about keeping their heads down, but when a friend finds herself in trouble, they set out on a mission that goes further than any of them imagined. Join “The Magnificent Six” as they discover how lessons learned the hard way can bring you closer together with friends you’ll never forget.
Onstage, physical theatre combines with an innovative beatbox soundscape that brings the pulse of the city to life in this coming-of-age adventure. It’s adapted by Emtaez Hussain and co-directed Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson and Belgrade Theatre’s 2021 Co-Artistic Director Corey Campbell. The young cast features Olisa Odele, Marcel White, Aimee Powell, Kate Donnachie, Simi Edgebjumi-David, Khai Shaw, Zak Douglas and Nigar Yeva.
Crongton Knights premieres at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from 8 to 22 February 2020. It then tours to York, Brighton, Salford, Derby and Huddersfield before concluding with a London season at Theatre Peckham from 22 April to 9 May.
How are you feeling about the stage version of your story?
I’m feeling excited to see my baby be taken up by someone else. Emteaz (Hussain, playwright) is putting something else into it and giving the story a new life.
Does it feel strange?
It feels like someone has found an entrance into your brain and discovered how it works, that’s a lot of fun. It’s also really interesting to see someone else’s interpretation of your own work and story. It was really something to be around the reading table to see people performing and bringing to life your work.
How did it come about?
It was a while ago now, Esther (Richardson, Pilot Theatre artistic director) came to me and said she loved the book. She said she really enjoyed how diverse it was and she loved the approach I had taken. The story itself was inspired by having parties for my kids and we lived in a really diverse area, so their friends were white, Iraqi, Pakistani; nobody cared what God anybody prayed to. They were just friends, that was all that mattered to them and that was the core of the story I wrote, this bond between this group of young people.
What was it like working with Emteaz?
When we first met, I sat down with her and said, ‘just make of it what you will’. I thought it would be kind of boring if there was a word-for-word telling of what I’d written on stage. Emteaz came up with some really interesting ideas, like making a character called Boy From the Hills a female character called Bush Girl. I thought the idea of introducing beatboxing to the story was a great idea. The skeleton of the story has stayed in place, but everyone involved has come up with some great new ideas and I salute them.
How would you describe the story you wrote?
It’s a simple quest story. It’s a King Arthur story with a group of friends who set out to conquer a challenge. Their quest is to retrieve a phone one of them needs to get back and on their quest, they meet various dangers. They have to get to where they are going, get the phone and get back home again. It’s an absolute classic story – oh, they also have to get home while there is a riot going on.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My writing always springs from my life. As a teenager living in Brixton, I met some real characters and I had a lot of friends who had some difficult times and things they had to conquer. I’ve been visited by bailiffs and had to cope with bereavement, like a lot of friends. My writing is informed by those life experiences.
What about your writing experience?
When I first picked up a pen, I wrote poetry and I tried being a reggae artist. Whatever I’ve been doing, I’ve always just tried to express that love is more powerful than hate. That’s what Crongton Knights is about, that people can come together and that’s powerful, especially if there is something they have come together to fight against. We are stronger together than apart, that’s the message. There is so much division these days and politicians emphasise that division rather than looking at what brings us together, which is why I want to tell the stories that I write.
What do you think of the stage version?
When I was at the read-through, I was falling off my chair. I found it moving and funny, which is a great thing that you get with a stage version where the characters are there in front of you. It’s great.
Want to know more? This great behind-the-scenes video includes rehearsal room videos with Crongton Knights cast members Aimee Powell, Zak Douglas, Olisa Odele, Khai Shaw, Marcel White and Simi Egbejumi-David, as well as co-directors Esther Richardson, from Pilot Theatre, and Corey Campbell, from Belgrade Theatre.
Prior to a UK tour, Crongton Knights runs at Belgrade Theatre, Belgrade Square, Corporation St, Coventry CV1 1GS from 8 to 22 February 2020 with performances Mondays to Saturdays at 7pm, matinees 13 February at 1.30pm, Saturdays 15 and 22 February at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced from £8.50. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!