Writer: Malorie Blackman
Adaptor: Sabrina Mahfouz
Director: Esther Richardson
Reviewer: Michael Gray
This ambitious new adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz of Malorie Blackman’s seminal Young Adult dystopian masterpiece has a tough job on its hands; It has to make the story accessible and immediate to those who’ve read the books and those who haven’t. A whole alternative society, divided, we quickly discover, on racial and social lines, has to be brought to life, characters established and motivated, key moments given weight and heft.
Esther Richardson’s production for Pilot Theatre rises superbly to the challenge. Simon Kenny’s bold design, inspired by infra-red photography, has massive panels, opening like weighty metal gates, providing a russet backdrop to the action as well as windows and cupboards. The colour scheme is echoed in the uniforms – Heathcroft School and Liberation Militia. Projection is excellently used; news footage gives authenticity and immediacy. The Noughts and Crosses symbol is never far away and sound and light conjure up the secluded seashore and the terrorist atrocity.
True, there is soliloquy, shared narration and show-and-tell where the novel lets us readers make our own discoveries. But the central idea, shining a light on prejudice and inequality, remains strong, and every bit as relevant as when Blackman began writing 20 years ago.
Helped, of course, by a strong acting company, headed by the star-crossed lovers at the empathetic heart of the drama. Heather Agyepong is Sephy (Persephone to her parents), a Cross, dark-skinned and upper-class, determined but vulnerable, brought up in a world of privilege (“orange juice and sketchbooks”), growing as a person during her boarding-school exile from immature teen to strong-willed, young woman. Her Callum is Billy Harris, a Nought, a “Blanker”, pale-skinned and down-trodden – open, honest, impetuous, he too has his time in the wilderness (“in the shadows”) eventually finding martyrdom as a freedom fighter.
Their scenes together are the emotional core of this piece. They have what little poetry is going – “waiting for your whistle at my window”. “Best friends” at first, then their wave-crashing first kiss, panic in the Cuckoo Café, their moment of passion in the condemned cell. “I wish I could be someone else,” she says, in a distant echo of Juliet, “But I can’t”. Only the meeting in the rose garden, which has great dramatic potential, fails to convince, with its hurried exits. The “Trial of the Century” seems a little underpowered, too, perhaps because we hear so little from the defence lawyer, secretly funded by Sephy’s mother.
Outstanding support from Doreene Blackstock as the alcoholic mother, Daniel Copeland as Callum’s dad, and also the Man from the North, who infiltrates the Liberation Militia at the instigation of Sephy’s father, the Home Secretary (Chris Jack).
The story ends as it began, with a newborn baby, the mixed-race Callie Rose, who, as fans of the novels will know, grows up to play a leading role in Checkmate and Double Cross.
This is the first of a projected series of theatre work aimed at a younger audience. And it was good to see the house full of school groups, all of them rapt, reacting viscerally to the action on stage.
With Colchester being Noughts and Crosses‘ fourth port of call, with Bristol, Brighton, Newcastle and York among the dates still to come, catch it while you can.
Runs until 9 March 2019 an on tour | Image: Robert Day