“It’s a black writer, an Asian adapter and a multicultural cast" - why Crongton Knights is so important

Crongton Knights was published in 2016, won the Guardian Children Fiction’s Prize that same year, was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize the following year and has become ever more relevant in the time since.

Crongton Knights opens at York Theatre Royal next week. Picture: Robert Day
Crongton Knights opens at York Theatre Royal next week. Picture: Robert Day

“The story is about people coming together and how we are stronger together than apart, that’s the message,” says the book’s author Alex Wheatle.

The book has now been adapted by playwright Emteaz Hussain and is being brought to the stage by York-based Pilot Theatre for a national tour.

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The production, which

The cast of Crongton Knights. (Credit: Robert Day).

tours from February to May is being created by Pilot alongside York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre Coventry and Derby Theatre.

Pilot, highly regarded for the work it creates on stages for younger adult audiences, is led by artistic director Esther Richardson who is co-directing Crongton Knights with artistic director of Strictly Arts Theatre Company Corey Campbell.

Crongton Knights adapter Emteaz Hussain has worked with the company previously, writing the script for the national tour of Outsiders.

“When Esther asked if I would consider adapting it, off I went and read it and loved it,” she says.

Author of the original novel, Alex Wheatle, and Emteaz Hussain who has adapated it for the stage.(Sharron Wallace Photography).

If we want to bring an end to prejudice and hatred then liberals need to take the lead, says Nick Ahad“Having worked with Esther before I thought ‘I can see why she thinks I can do this’. I’m glad she had faith in me to do it because I just loved the way Alex had written this world of Crongton. Even though it’s fictional, I really related to it because it’s multicultural in an intelligent and intricate way.”

Wheatle’s novel tells the story of McKay, who 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, local hoods on a power trip and violent gangsters.

Hussain knew quite quickly how she wanted to write the story.

“I was struck by the journey and the quest,” she says. “Quite instinctively I thought that was what the play needed to

be about. 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.

“What’s great is that on the quest they learn so much about themselves and each other. The message is that you are not alone as young people because you have each other.

“You have to back each other up because out there you are on your own if you don’t stand together, that’s what they learn on their journey.”

Hussain writes original scripts and poetry, but was in familiar territory making someone else’s work for the stage.

“I think a lot about my relationship to the book in terms of being an adapter, the idea of the story being filtered through me as a writer,” she says.

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“His big heartedness, there’s a big beating heart in that book and I love that. In terms of how to adapt a book that everybody loves, well I feel the same, you know, I love it too.

“That’s why I’m doing it, I’m with all those young readers who love it, even though I’m not young, I’m as passionate about the story as they are. For me, that’s how I feel, if I wasn’t I don’t know how I could do it.”

As minorities, both the author of the original novel Wheatle and adapter Hussain believe there is a need for stories featuring diverse characters on our stages, and in books, in the stories we tell.

Hussain says: “It’s a black writer, an Asian adapter, a multicultural cast, a director in Esther who has done a lot of work in inner cities and multicultural communities; as a creative team we are really imbued with diversity.

“The message at the heart of the story is that we are more similar than different. We need each other and need to find ways to overcome our differences and be there for each other because if we don’t we are in big trouble.

“That’s the massive message in terms of a multicultural story that is important, if we don’t overcome differences and be there for

each other then society is incredibly divisive and we have,

lo and behold Brexit. Sorry, that’s my political persuasion coming out.”

Wheatle himself has found great joy in seeing his work come to life.

How Yorkshire’s theatres are beating austerity cuts for the arts“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,” he says.

Crongton Knights continues the important work Pilot does by opening up the theatre to audiences who might traditionally have thought the theatre isn’t for them.

“Theatre can be thought of as a middle class, white, middle aged arena. I hope because of the company we have, because of Alex and because of the story itself we will attract a diverse audience.

“I think theatres have some work to do to bring in a younger and more multicultural audience, but there are artists and plays

like this that are chipping away and trying to appeal to that audience, to bring young people in.

“We’ve got to just keep at it and keep telling these stories.”

Crongton Knights, York Theatre Royal, February 25- 29 (tickets 01904 623568), Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 31-April 4, (tickets 01484 430528).