Writer: Malorie Blackman
Adaptor: Sabrina Mahfouz
Director: Esther Richardson
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Producers are unanimous in their belief in the dramatic potential of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crossesnovels. There has already been one stage adaptation and later this year there will be a TV version on the BBC.
The story is set in an alternative reality where society is strictly segregated – the Crosses live prosperous lifestyles while the Noughts, with only menial jobs and second-rate educations, form a resistance movement committing violent acts to redress the balance. The twist is that the Crosses are black while the Noughts are white. Although Sephy (Heather Agyepong) is a Cross she has been best friends with Nought Callum (Billy Harris) since childhood. Callum serves as an example of social progress having earned a scholarship to Sephy’s exclusive school, which previously admitted only Crosses. However, little in this society is as it seems, and familial and peer pressure along with growing tensions in the community begin to force the friends and potential lovers apart.
The plot for Noughts & Crosses is satisfyingly complex with the motives of the characters (including Sephy and Callum) being murky grey rather than straightforward black and white. Sephy can afford to be daring as her wealthy background insulates her from any consequences of her relationship with Callum. Callum joins the resistance movement to push for change in society but admits to taking personal revenge on those who bullied his friend. Compressing wide-ranging material into a two hour running time shapes Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation. Agyepong and Harris deliver much of the dialogue as narrative-describing events- rather than in conversation between characters.
Director Esther Richardson avoids limiting the play to a series of monologues by creating an oppressive, nightmarish atmosphere. Simon Kenny’s design – with banks of televisions constantly flickering in the background – sets the mood of a community under permanent surveillance. There is a feeling of barely restrained hysteria as if everyone is on edge; when one character has a panic attack the rest of the cast mime the symptoms with tortured poses and thrown furniture.
Richardson’s approach perfectly catches the theme of Noughts & Crosses. Segregation cannot be justified by reasoned argument so those in control enforce their policies by violent, oppressive actions. The approach creates a vicious circle that brutalises all sectors of society. The disaffected feel they have no option but to respond in kind with terrorist acts that generate even greater brutality from the authorities. Billy Harris takes Callum from a decent teenager determined to make the best of his limited opportunities to someone so morally compromised he commits acts of violence without regret.
Limited resources require the cast to ‘double up’ and play more than one role, which can be confusing. An early scene gives the impression that Callum’s dad may be a double agent as Daniel Copeland plays both roles.
Heather Agyepong gives a standout performance representing the moral heart of the play. Agyepong opens with Sephy as an awkward teenager; gawky limbs twisting all over the place and breathlessly enthusiastic before being so worn down by events she is willing to numb her feelings with alcohol.
Imaginative direction and strong performances ensure Noughts & Crosses achieves its high ambitions.
Runs until 2 March, 2019 | Image: Robert Day