DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Noughts & Crosses – Theatre Royal, York

Writer: Malorie Blackman

Adapted by: Sabrina Mahfouz

Director: Esther Richardson

Designer: Simon Kenny

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

York-based Pilot Theatre now co-produce with four major theatres, including York Theatre Royal, and the current tour of Pilot’s vibrant production of Noughts & Crosses will have played a week or more at no fewer than ten theatres between February and May.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s skillful and sympathetic adaptation of Noughts & Crosses preserves the essence of Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel, though clearly, a two-hour version of a 450-page novel means that sometimes the bare bones narrative remains to the exclusion of characters’ motivations or back-stories.

Noughts & Crosses is a Romeo and Juliet story set in a world where Blackman poses two “What if?” questions, one a thought-provoking inversion of what happened historically, the other an increasingly ominous possibility. The African races, the Crosses, hold the key to political power, culture and technological advance; while the whites, the Noughts – abusively termed the Blankers – are deemed incapable of intellectual thought. At the same time, the regime is authoritarian, totalitarian, so that the “inferior” Noughts are denied such privileges as mobile phones, segregation dominates education and social life, and punishments are draconian.

Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought, are thrown together as children: Callum’s mother, Meggie, is housekeeper/nursemaid for Sephy’s mother. Sephy and Callum become best friends, but, as that is ripening into love, circumstances shift constantly: Meggie is sacked, but Callum gains a place at Sephy’s school as part of a policy to lessen Noughts’ grievances, this in turn leading to riots and attacks on both Callum and Sephy. To complicate matters further, Sephy’s father, Kamal, is Home Secretary, a hard-liner, but a devious politician who fakes sympathy with the Noughts’ cause, while Callum’s father and brother become involved with the Liberation Militia. The final stage of the story is not especially surprising, but the route there is full of unexpected, but credible, twists. Opportunities to question issues of right versus expediency are presented in a relevant way to a largely teenage audience.

Mahfouz’ adaptation opts for a series of short scenes with limited explanation and background and Esther Richardson directs a pacy production with scenes overlapping and mime and movement suggesting events. The use of video (design by Ian William Galloway) works superbly, television news broadcasts revealing the public face of Crosses propaganda, especially through Kamal, the smooth media operator. Simon Kenny’s bleak designs shift and flash and oppress with the aid of dramatic lighting (Joshua Drualus Pharo) and sound (Arun Ghosh and Xana).

Heather Agyepong (Sephy) and Billy Harris (Callum) are both intensely likable and thoroughly credible as the two lovers, charting their changes of attitude and emotion over a period of years, Agyepong particularly convincing and sympathetic in her progress from a happy girl sketching on the river bank to a young adult realizing the symbolic impact of her decisions. The six remaining actors switch roles effectively while focusing mainly on one part each: the parents and sibling of Sephy and Callum. In a strong ensemble Chris Jack’s Kamal, every inch the politician, and Doreene Blackstock as his alcoholic wife give stand-out performances.

Touring nationwide | Image: Robert Day

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Pacy and dramatic

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