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Review: Crongton Knights (Belgrade Theatre and tour)

Alex Wheatle's children's book is brought to the stage in a blistering co-production between Pilot Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Derby Theatre and York Theatre Royal

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Magnificent Six mid-rave
© Robert Day

Crongton Knights is the second production from a consortium dedicated to developing theatre for younger audiences. After an acclaimed tour of Noughts and Crosses in 2019, this fresh take on Alex Wheatle's children's book cements their talent at bringing contemporary cultures to the stage. Emteaz Hussain has slickly penned a punchy script, brought all the more to life by Conrad Murray's energetic music and beatboxing.

The story follows the ‘magnificent six', a motley crew of school kids on a modern-day quest into the dangerous lands of North Crongton. Their aim: to retrieve a stolen phone with inappropriate images on its memory. The friends must navigate the all-too-resonant threats of gang rivalry, knife crime, child sexual exploitation and their own problems at home. These dark themes of their odyssey are nicely offset by the upbeat, slick sounds of the play's beatboxing. Children will love the colour and vibrancy of what they see and hear on stage, whilst important themes of friendship and overcoming personal hardships will resonate in the characters' dilemmas. A complimentary audio installation in the theatre of Coventry's children's own experiences of an inner-city community adds local importance to the production.

What really brings the emotional tug to the play is the actors' enthusiasm and energy. The cohesive ensemble is strong, while also given enough room individually to flesh out the Knights' personal struggles. Kate Donnachie's Bushkid is the star turn here, with stellar vocals across the board. She has sassy support from Olisa Odele's McKay, whose solo dedicated to the delights of cooking had the audience in stitches. The production is indeed at times hilarious; lighter moments helping to both punctuate and underline the darker sides to the story.

Even if the directive energy sags slightly in the middle, with some motifs threatening to stray into moralizing territory, the graffitied, colourful set keeps the eye entertained. Our knights clamber over a multi-levelled, rotating central stage piece, reflecting the dynamism of their quest well. The choreography is excellent, matching the speed of the snappy, clever raps.

Ending on an uplifting, quasi-Shakespearean song and dance, Crongton Knights updates a chivalrous quest for modern times. As an expression of contemporary heroism amid troubling times, the play hits exactly the right note. Schoolchildren will love it. Long live the magnificent six!