Brighton Year-Round 2020
Adapted from the novel by Alex Wheatle by Emteaz Hussain, directed by Core Campbell and Esther Richardson. Simon Kenny designs, lit by Richard G Jones. Conrad Murray composes and Sound Design’s by Adam P McCready. Fight Director’s Roger Bartlett and Voice Coach Ellen Hartley. Till March 7th.
With a thrill of enthusiasm a young ensemble bursts on to the stage proclaiming they’re the magnificent six. Two-and-a-half hours later they’ve proved their point.
Emteaz Hussain adapts Alex Wheatle’s novel Crongton Knights with a vibrant collaborative team – directors Core Campbell and Esther Richardson of Pilot Theatre, a sassy set by Simon Kenny featuring a wheeling spray-art castle which spins to stepped seats on one side, a bright wall on the other and an entrance. Blue-grey gantries backstage and ladders interlock at points with it. It’s not often at a standstill.
Moodily lit by Richard G Jones we’re in an urban sprayscape. And those six actors are all over it, leaping, gyrating sexily, low-down in grunge moves, jumping into the air and arriving back together. In Crongton, an anytown’s estate.
Though ensemble diction’s not always distinct, there’s an emotional pull-through, a family sonance in the group’s vocalising. They support each other. It’s in the DNA of the story, and storytelling’s the thing: each member takes up a thread though it’s down to one in particular.
The sextet pump on with Conrad Murray’s catchy melodies – that title tune and many others with smart angsty rhymes about being strong – and long – and the haunting ‘What are we doing here?’ that starts Act 2. Though melodies are a bit samey they’re all catchy and the harmonizing of this six-pack is a little bit heart-stopping. Adam P McCready’s sound design never drowns the intimacy in reverb.
There’s two storylines that conflate into a quest story. Olisa Odele’s McKay, an aspiring chef, tries to cover for his brother’s vanishing Nesta – Dale Mathurin – has gone AWOL since his bike’s jacked, and becomes a mysterious pull-figure for McKay. Both men mourn their mother and their father’s absence. Odele’s the conscience of the play, one of three instinctive peacemakers round the more alienated trio. It’s his storytelling we hear most and Odele’s a warm anchoring presence throughout.
Then Aimee Powell’s commanding Venetia ‘the queen’ tries to retrieve intimate photos her ex forced into making – and now threatens to send them viral. She’s lost her younger sister to knife crime. Zak Douglas’ tumbling, active Bin, fond of her and whom she thinks of as different, hides the fact that he transported a gun. As Venetia’s younger sister was gunned down. There’s edgy half-hero, half-coward and always querulous Jonah. Khai Shaw makes him uncomfortably real.
Powell’s voice is nailingly fine yet melting. She can soar stratospherically yet fine down her harmonies to heartbreak. Her diction too is very strong – the women are generally cleaner in delivery and more easy to follow. The work deploys and idiom yo attune to after 10-15 minutes.
It’s because of Venetia the five – as they are then, which includes Nigar Yeva’s smart sharp-witted yet warm Saira – journey towards the heart of darkness. The Notre Dame Estate. After some journeying they try batting away zany Bushkid, the gawky, awkward girl wearing a school tie (who does nowadays?) on her electric bike. Kate Donnachie’s performance is quite wonderful as the bright child of a psychologist, clearly on the Knights’ wrong side of the tracks, but whose scouting skills and sheer guts soon prove indispensible. ‘After some consideration we can state, consider yourself one of us.’ Wrong lyric right sentiment.
Donnachie’s singing too – she gets one plangent solo – is superb and individual. Powell’s is pure lyric soprano. Donnachie’s is deeper with a distinct timbre to it. It would have been good to have heard more of her.
The bus-ride to the estate, the gambits to trick Venetia’s ex out (and her wavering at the sight of his persuasion, nattily lit), as she pleads, her friends finally jump and retrieve the phone are the first acts’ highlight. Deleting the messages none to soon though they soon discover why they’re in enemy territory, as Odele relates.
Act Two finds the deflated group tearing strips off each other – Jonah’s insecurities after having a knife held to his throat, revealing something of Bit he shouldn’t almost sending the group off in different directions. Wheatle’s story is particularly strong when tracing group dynamics, splinterings of loyalty, the reforming of alliances and the role of wise peacemakers to force some truth and reconciliation.
Saira from Syria, whose father’s died, is one such and Yeva’s role is to the fore far more, breaking out of her mother’s terrified care of her. It’s a backstory to make the others realize how absurd their own privations are.
Yeva’s very impressive Alongside McKay and the now valued Bushkid she proves the instinctive adult. Donnachie’s performance too – full of bop and restless energy – is the most physically distinctive and characterfully tailored.
There’s more adolescent discoveries first. After being tricked by a cab driver when the buses fail, they crash into a rave and discover someone they really don’t want to meet, knife-wielding Festus (Simi Egbejumi-David) with a grievance with Nesta. And who knows how to lure him out. There’s a finely-choreographed scene where the escapees fall into poses in their agonists’ arms. Then there’s the story of how a woman find the cold courage to break this.
The pace of storytelling in the last third of this play certainly accelerates, but there’s few longeurs. This ensemble never sits still, and though a touch more vocal clarity wouldn’t go amiss, the women generally are very fine here: Powell and Donnachie but also Yeva. But all the ensemble’s acting – in particular Odele’s who has most to do, but Shaw and Douglas, as well as the two multi-roling actors who add a tang and set of different idioms: Egbejumi-David and Mathurin who play anything from villains to cab driving villains to anxious fathers.
The melodies rarely let up, and the ensemble never does; everything’s to a powerful beat. This work is a small masterclass in storytelling from the ground up, from the estates, raw and powerful as Andrea Dunbar. It’s marvellous its realisation enjoys such verve, such heart and such truth.