Writer: Sabrina Mahfouz from the novel by Malorie Blackman
Director: Esther Richardson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Imagine an alternative Britain. A Britain in which discrimination on the basis of your skin colour is rife. Where the underclass isn’t allowed mobile phones or even such luxuries as milk every day. Where schools and jobs are segregated. In this Britain, the ruling class are Crosses while the underclass are the Noughts. And imagine a Britain where some derogatory words – ‘Blanker’ for noughts, ‘Dagger’ for Crosses – have the power to raise passions to erupt into violent disorder. This is the Britain that Malorie Blackman has imagined for her series of Young Adult books.
One might think that this dystopia isn’t that big a step from some areas of modern Britain and the West as racial attacks and gang violence continue to make the headlines across the world. But in Blackman’s present, there’s one big difference: it’s set in an alternative history in which it’s the African nations that dominated and gained mastery over the European underclass. This might seem an obvious, even blunt, twist but it somehow adds power to see the status quo so totally reversed.
Noughts and Crosses focuses on two families, the Cross Hadleys and the Nought MacGregors. In the past, they got on well: Sephy Hadley and Callum MacGregor are best friends, even across the divide. Then something happens to split the families apart and Sephy and Callum’s friendship goes underground.
Despite his personal aversion to Noughts, Kamal Hadley, Home Office minister and father to Sephy, is forced into liberalising the treatment of the two groups by the Pangaean Economic Community.
But when a bomb is planted by the Nought organised Liberation Militia and kills nine Crosses, life for the Hadleys and MacGregors changes forever.
Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation allows us to see events from the points of view of both families, especially Callum and Sephy. We do feel sympathy for individuals, Crosses as well as Noughts, who feel trapped by the status quo, acting out the rôles ordained for them. We also see, and understand, the pressures on friendship and, yes, even love, across the Cross-Nought divide. Slick, unapologetic direction from Esther Richardson carries the plot forward.
Central to the story are Sephy (Heather Agyepong) and Callum (Billy Harris). Both actors bring a real sense of being childlike to the earlier scenes where they are young teenagers. The difficulties they face growing up in such an oppressive atmosphere, in which every nuance of behaviour is seen and noted, are well drawn. We understand the difficult decisions they face and the reasons behind them. Towering performances indeed.
Chris Jack is the thoroughly unlikeable Kamal. Chameleon-like, he changes persona to suit his audience. Jack makes it crystal-clear that, while in public Kamal might embrace increasing liberalism and the greater good, in private his top priority is Kamal Hadley’s career.
The cast is relatively small, so there is considerable doubling up among the supporting characters. Cast members don different costumes and personas so it is usually clear whether, for example, Doreene Blackstocke is portraying the alcoholic mother of Sephy or a Cross school pupil, but there are times when it’s less than clear and that can lead one to, for a time, misunderstand the motives of, for example, Daniel Copeland’s Ryan, Callum’s father.
Simon Kenny’s simplistic design calls to mind a noughts and crosses game with its grid-like elements, which open to form doors, windows and cupboards. The use of television monitors that relay rolling news and invite us to compare and contrast the public and private faces of characters, particularly the Hadleys, is especially powerful. Scene changes are slick and well choreographed.
Noughts and Crosses pulls no punches in its depiction of these dysfunctional families and their imperfect choices; in the programme notes, we’re told that Blackman’s greatest wish is for ‘Noughts and Crosses to be no longer relevant’. Nearly twenty years after the book’s original publication, that wish is unfulfilled: if anything, its relevance to modern day society has increased. Its story of endemic racism and political scheming isn’t a comfortable watch, but it is a memorable one and one worth seeking out.
Runs Until 30 March 2019 and on tour | Image: Robert Day