Writer: Adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz from the novel by Malorie Blackman
Director: Esther Richardson
Adapted by writer Sabrina Mahfouz, from Malorie Blackman’s critically acclaimed novel Noughts and Crosses, this vitally important piece of theatre delivers a powerful message through a vibrant, energetic performance. The production by Pilot Theatre catapults its audience into an alternate world which explores experiences of race and class in an innovative and compelling way. Blackman was inspired to write her 50th book in part by the case of Stephen Lawrence, and particularly how it was handled by the police. Echoing these origins, mixed media is used beautifully in this production to illustrate the parallel world in which we find ourselves.
In a land where the “dark-skinned” Crosses are the ruling class, while the “colourless”, “pale-skinned” Noughts are oppressed, we see the consequences of segregation and deeply entrenched prejudice. At the heart of the story are two young people – star-crossed lovers – who feel familiar to us. Although here, we find the frenzied romance of Romeo and Juliet to be transformed into a slow growing affection between Sephy (Effie Ansah), a privileged Cross, and her childhood friend Calum (James Adren), a struggling Nought. By flipping familiar experiences of systemic racism, the story allows for powerful observations to be made, some of the most effective concerning everyday struggles of body shaming and withholding resources.
At its best, the production succeeds in exploring privilege, segregation and oppression through presenting moments of poignant recognition. Where the production is less successful is in providing variations in tone. This is challenging in a play so heavy with vital politics. However, regardless of whether a Nought or a Cross, siblings still bicker, parents loathe one another, and even the central Romeo and Juliet mapped love story struggles to find softer moments in the sea of hatred, anger and grief. More moments of tenderness and care between characters could really help the audience to invest further in their plight, and as a result be further moved by the conflicts presented.
Poetic asides and monologues delivered by Effie Ansah (Sephy) and James Arden (Callum) nod to the Shakespearean origins of the story in a fluid dynamic way and reflect the playwright’s skills as a poet. The lead actors work extremely hard to bring their characters to life and indeed Effie Ansah and James Arden succeed in winning our sympathies. However, the bow at the end of the piece has been choreographed in such a way as to not give both these two commanding leads their due.
During the first bow, we scan for Effie Ansah, who has played the lead of Sephy with such vibrancy and energy, and are stunned to find her hidden behind her white male counterpart. Uncomfortably, the first bow is taken with all white actors in a line in front, while black actors stand behind. The actors swap places for the second bow but it is hard to shake off the feeling that the damage has already been done.
Choreography during the production has moments that feel clunky, where it is hard to understand why someone moving a chair requires them to loop a long way around the stage, and on more than one occasion this distracts from the performances. However, generally the aesthetic is largely impactful and the set design by Simon Kenny provides moments of delight as red squares we assumed were fixed suddenly become a door, a window, or a locker. The school desks with their changing coloured lights are a dynamic addition to the aesthetic and the noughts and crosses theme is visually well realised.
This is undoubtedly a thought-provoking politically vital adaptation of an extremely influential novel. It is recommended viewing for all, but will particularly appeal to the younger audience for who it has been designed.
Reviewed on 21st February. Runs to 26th February.