Preview: Crongton Knights

Playwright Emteaz Hussain’s stage adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s prize-winning book puts hood rats and gangsters in the way of an Arthurian quest – with beatboxing

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McKay lives on the South Crongton estate. Since his mum died his dad has been working all hours to keep the bailiffs from the door and his older brother is always out on the streets, tempting trouble. One night he heads out on a heroic mission to retrieve a girl’s mobile phone and finds himself facing crazed ex-boyfriends, hood rats on a power trip and violent gangsters.

Playwright and poet Emteaz Hussain knew quickly how she wanted to adapt Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights for stage.

“I was struck by the journey and the quest. The book isn’t only about the quest and at no point does a character say ‘we’re going on a quest’, but that is what happens.”

Wheatle confirms Hussain’s instinct. “It’s a simple quest story. It’s a King Arthur story with a group of friends who set out to conquer a challenge and on their quest they meet various dangers. It’s an absolute classic story. Oh, they also have to get home while there is a riot going on.”

The story is shaped by his own experiences. Wheatle spent most of his childhood in the council-run Shirley Oaks children’s home village in Croydon, subject of an ongoing inquiry over child sexual abuse, and is a member of the Shirley Oaks Survivors Association.

He returned to Brixton in 1977, where he founded the Crucial Rocker sound system, performing under the name of Yardman Irie. He spent a short stint in prison following the Brixton uprising of 1981 and it was there he was encouraged to start reading by a cellmate.

Following his release from prison he became known as the Brixtonbard. He has written nine books, including Crongton Knights, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

“As a teenager living in Brixton I met some real characters and I had a lot of friends 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.”

Hussain related to the story and has put her stamp on it with a strong female perspective written in as well as beatboxing.

“It’s multicultural in an intelligent and intricate way. It’s about white working-class people, black people, Asian people, all different people living in a city together.

“We’re very lucky to have Conrad Murray, who is a big deal and a great, award-winning beatboxer. I’m a poet and a big fan of rhythms so even though I’m not a beatboxer, I can see how the rhythms affect the story.”

Wheatle approves. “When I first picked up a pen I wrote poetry and I tried being a reggae artist,” he says. “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.

“I’ve always just tried to express that love is more powerful than hate. That’s what Crongton Knights is about – people can come together and that’s powerful if there is something they have come together to fight against.”

Crongton Knights is at the Lowry, Salford, 10-14 March; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 31 March-4 April

Photo: Robert Day

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