DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Noughts and Crosses – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Margaret Hooper

Writer: Malorie Blackman

Adapter: Sabrina Mahfouz

Director: Esther Richardson

Noughts and Crosses, directed by Esther Richardson and produced by Pilot Theatre is on day 6 of a two-year tour around the UK.

Effie Ansah plays Sephy; a member of the ruling elite, the dark-skinned Crosses. Sephy is falling in love with her childhood friend, Callum, played by James Arden. Callum belongs to the Noughts – the white-skinned lower classes. We quickly learn that in a world segregated by race and class divides, the friendship and blossoming love they feel for each other will not be easily accepted. Winner of six book awards and ranked 88th in The Guardian’s Best Books of the 21st Century, the current performance falls short of the accolades received by Malorie Blackman’s probing story.

A striking set of red panelled gauze, designed by Simon Kenny, sets a dystopian, claustrophobic tone, neon lights make plain the harshness of reality, and even scenes set at the beach have a sense of foreboding about them. The set successfully embodies the restrictive atmosphere of Noughts and Crosses and with screens seemingly inlaid into the fabric of the world, the ubiquity of the ruling class is palpable.

But Richardson’s production hovers between two worlds; whilst the set is domineering and accompanying drone-like notes provide a sense of fear and, at times, urgency, the overall performance does not elucidate the relentlessness of structural racism and class divide. Moments of poeticism and physical energy are let down by the lack attention paid to plot points; the Liberation Militia, rather than being representative of the Black Panthers, is more akin to an incel group populated by bad-tempered white men.

At times throughout the piece, flashes of inspiration can be seen – girls becoming the violent school bullies, props taking on multiple uses, and real tension in life-changing moments. One must applaud the energy of the cast and willingness to play with the world they are placed in, with utter belief in the changing landscapes around them. Yet, for these moments, there is no cohesive whole performance, and the effects of a brutal existence are not adequately portrayed by the cast.

This production of Noughts and Crosses has much to build on. With time, one would hope the cast are able to play with their roles and discover what has made Blackman’s stories so powerful.

Runs until Saturday 24th September 2022, before continuing on tour.

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