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Noughts and Crosses

Sabrina Mahfouz, after the novel by Malorie Blackman

Pilot Theatre

Quays Theatre, The Lowry, Salford

January 18-21, 2023; 2 hrs 30 mins

James Arden as Callum and Effie Ansah as Sephy photo by Robert Day
James Arden as Callum and Effie Ansah as Sephy in Pilot Theatre's Noughts and Crosses. All pics: Robert Day

Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel about love across a racial divide has become something of a franchise.

Its first stage version appeared in 2007 and toured, and there has been a TV version of the whole series of novels that flowed from the original. This adaptation of the first story for smaller theatres, directed by Esther Richardson, is from 2019 and is now halfway through another tour, with visits to Oldham Coliseum (March 14-18) and other theatres still to come.

Like other literary products that finally get on to the school syllabus, it’s maybe a little past its sell-by date now. It envisages a Britain that’s like the present in many ways, except that there’s rigid segregation (not just discrimination) between a ruling elite – aka the Crosses – and everyone else – the Noughts. The Crosses are black African, it seems (not Caribbean): the Noughts must be the whites and others (though the others don’t get a look-in, as far as I could tell). There’s capital punishment for Noughts who step out of line, and the courts are corrupt, though TV news is clearly free from government control.

Two families, one from each group, are intertwined: Sephy, a Cross whose dad is Home Secretary, and Callum, a Nought whose mum used to work for his people, are in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style relationship. There’s an underground Liberation Militia of Noughts, aiming to overthrow the government. You can probably guess the way it works out, if you don’t know the story already.

Simplistic? Yes, of course it is - if you’re looking for moral reflections arising from a role reversal of the privileged and everyone else in modern Britain. Just the title tells you that. But as a piece of theatre it is very well done indeed. Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation is taut and varied, getting in most of the major incidents of the story and keeping some of the first-person element by giving the two main protagonists a fair helping of soliloquies to the audience. It catches attention from the start, setting up its situations without the need for two people telling each other what they both already know. Esther Richardson’s staging (with design by Simon Kenny, lighting by Ben Cowens and music and sound by Arun Ghosh and Xana) is effective and beautifully timed.

And the actors are very good, especially Effie Ansah as Sephy and James Arden as Callum, both believable as teenagers and often quite moving. Callum’s relationship with his sister Lynnie, who has mental health problems and never speaks in the play, has to be told entirely by him alone, and Arden made that both real and sympathetic.

Something you can’t do in this case is have colour-blind casting: it’s all about skin colour, and in a production for small theatres you get small casts and consequent multiple roles. Chris Jack, as the one black adult male in the line-up, has to switch from home secretary to teacher to policeman to courtroom barrister and more.

One thing leaves me uneasy. The whole story hinges on the frisson of love between people of different skin colour being somehow illicit in itself (though no one ever says there’s a law against it), and never quite tackles why that should be so, even regardless of who has privilege and power.

More info and tickets here


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