Noughts and Crosses

Malorie Blackman (adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz)
Pilot Theatre
Bristol Old Vic

Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum Credit: Robert Day
Noughts and Crosses Credit: Robert Day
The cast for Noughts and Crosses Credit: Robert Day

Malorie Blackman’s 2001 bestseller Noughts and Crosses is set in an imaginary dystopian society, Pangea. Much like Gilead in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Blackman’s Pangea is a supremacist society but here the system is based on racial lines. In this society, the ruling class, the ‘Crosses’, are black and the whites, the ‘Noughts’, are the underclass. In other respects, it is, shockingly, a society uncomfortably familiar to our own.

Blackman’s novel deals with the issues of race, gender, patriarchy, class, mental health, politics and violence primarily through the development of the relationship between Sephy, the privileged daughter of the Home Secretary, Kamal Hadley, and Callum, the son of the Hadleys' housekeeper.

We watch as the two flawed but brave teenagers struggle to keep their friendship alive despite the social pressures all around them. Both have to keep the relationship hidden from their families. At school, Sephy is bullied by other Crosses for sitting next to the Noughts at break. As their relationship develops, the couple find themselves torn apart by the forces around them. Callum’s brother and, later, her father are drawn into a violent militant group aimed at destabilising the ruling class. Sephy’s father, as part of a totalitarian state, will suffer no challenges and the death penalty is put into force. The stakes could not be higher for the couple.

Simon Kenny’s design arrests our senses from the start. Ominously broody, blood-red panels cover the backdrop, heightening the nervous tension from the very start of the production. Onto these, giant TV screens are occasionally projected to deliver news bulletins or offstage action. The parallels to the ‘Big Brother’ screens in Orwell’s 1984 are impossible to miss and are hugely evocative and disconcerting. Light and sound production by Joshua Drualus Pharo, Arun Ghosh and Xana respectively are used to magnify the impact not just for the dramatic explosive effects but the continuously distorting reception from the broadcasts on the screens. The whole gives the impression of an ugly, authoritarian state on the verge of losing control to the violent forces it attempts to hold down. The result is to create a superbly edgy, nervous, threatening anxiety throughout the production.

Unfortunately, Sabrina Mahfouz’s very episodic adaptation doesn’t establish a smooth-flowing narrative for this production. The Romeo and Juliet nature of the doomed relationship is well developed. The effect on mental health and the suffering such a regime can produce is also well handled. However, the motives behind some of the supporting characters' behaviour is dealt with too sparsely leaving much to be presumed. What is strikingly disappointing is the unexplained motive behind Callum’s shift and descent into militancy.

Billy Harris and Heather Agyepong are perfectly cast as the two heroes. Support by Doreen Blackstock (Jasmine), Jack Condon (Jude), Daniel Copeland (Ryan), Lisa Howard (Meggie), Chris Jack (Kamal) and Kimisha Lewis (Minerva) complete this great cast although the doubling up of roles can be confusing.

Co-produced by Pilot Theatre as part of a programme of plays aimed at young adults, this production, despite its flaws, delivers a warning about repressive state control which is, sadly, as relevant today as it was when it was written.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

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