Noughts & Crosses

Adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz from the novel by Malorie Blackman
Pilot Theatre
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Effie Ansah (Seffy), James Arden (Callum) Credit: Robert Day
James Arden (Callum), Emma Keele (Meggie), Daniel Copeland (Ryan), Nathaniel McCloskey (Jude) Credit: Robert Day
Company of Noughts & Crosses Credit: Robert Day

The power of Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel Noughts & Crosses is still very real. Two stage adaptations, a BBC TV series in 2020 and a place on the GCSE drama curriculum ensure a wider audience continues to be exposed to its stark examination of racial prejudice and discrimination.

Pilot Theatre revived their original 2019 production last year and it is now coming to the end of a UK tour. Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation has a poetic feel with nods to the diaristic style of Blackman’s novel; Esther Richardson’s direction reflects the whirlwind pace of the long first act, with more contemplative “reveals” after the interval.

Set in the not-too-distant but recognisable future, this is a re-imagining of the Romeo and Juliet storyline: Sephy (Effie Ansah) is a privileged “Cross” teenager, daughter of Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Daniel Norford) and with the Crosses the authoritarian, ruling class. Callum (James Arden) is a Nought, brought up as playmates with Sephy thanks to Callum’s mum Meggie (Emma Keele) working as the Hadley's nanny. The Crosses have black skin, the Noughts are white; in a world where the Noughts are oppressed with minimal rights and freedoms, Sephy and Callum are equals as friends, and fall in love.

Sephy is frustrated with her home life: an absent father, an alcoholic mother Jasmine (Amie Buhari) and aloof older sister Minerva (Abiola Efunshile). Sephy and Callum’s situation is further complicated by Callum’s brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) and father Ryan (Daniel Copeland) joining the Liberation Militia, a violent organisation seeking an end to the Crosses’ supremacist rule. Callum gets caught up in these activities and, as with the Romeo and Juliet plot of doomed love, tragedy unfolds.

Responding to Mahfouz’s short, snappy scenes, designer Simon Kenny uses suggestion of a “familiar but different” world, with panels of red, black and neon signifying different spaces, as well as a means to project TV reports and CCTV screens to aid storytelling. The set is sparse—it’s the words and mood that matter here, props are utilitarian, the Crosses have ample space in their scenes, the Noughts are cramped, and Ben Cowans’s lighting further emphasises the various tableaux. Arun Ghosh and Xana’s music and sound design are relentlessly sinister and foreboding.

There has to be chemistry between Sephy and Callum for this fast-paced production to work and Ansah and Arden have this, as well as portraying their characters’ evolution as they cope with both their developing relationship and navigating their prejudiced world. Both actors are impressive in their first professional leading roles, with strong support from the cast covering a variety of roles.

As with An Inspector Calls last week, the audience for this performance (the night before press night) was dominated by groups of schoolchildren, this time it looked like years 7 to 9 (cue much giggling during the love scene). A young man a few seats from me, still in his school blazer, sat totally transfixed throughout, providing a good demonstration of the compelling power of the Noughts & Crosses story. This chilling production does it justice.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

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