Pilot Theatre, in co-production with Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Derby Theatre, Mercury theatre Colchester, and York Theatre Royal presents
Noughts and Crosses
by Malorie Blackman
Adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz
Directed by Esther Richardson
At Derby Theatre, 1 – 16 February 2019
Plans by Pilot Theatre to stage an adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s awardwinning young adult novel, Noughts and Crosses, began at the end of 2016, a year when a young mother and MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right activist and the EU referendum result a few weeks later led to disturbing rises in racist attacks throughout the country.
Sabrina Mahfouz has done an impressive job adapting Blackman’s young adult novel for this co-production between Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Mercury Theatre Colchester and York Theatre Royal. First published in 2001, the novel took the experiences of the black civil rights movement and apartheid in South Africa as its reference points to create an alternate world where African settlers enslaved Europeans. Unfortunately, and in terms of theatre holding a mirror to society, the news on a daily basis continues to make racial injustice a depressingly relevant production.
Noughts have white skin, are the ‘lower class’ and serve the ruling class of the Crosses, of dark skin. Callum (Billy Harris) is a Nought (or, its urban dictionary equivalent, a ‘blanker’), and a childhood friend of Sephy (Heather Agyepong), a Cross who just happens to be the younger daughter of the Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack). Living in a regime of segregation and capital punishment, Sephy and Callum fall in love but in this kind of environment, actions have brutal and tragic consequences.
Angry with their situation, Callum’s brother Jude (Jack Condon) and his father Ryan (Daniel Copeland) get involved with the Liberation Militia. Meggie (Lisa Howard), Callum’s mother, is torn apart by her family’s actions. Sephy’s mother Jasmine (Doreene Blackstock) has her own issues with her husband and the bottle; Sephy’s sister Minerva (Kimisha Lewis) despairs of her sister’s apparently reckless behaviour.
Mahfouz tackles the episodic, diary style of the novel well and with Esther Richardson’s direction, the pace moves fast, although this does occasionally mean there is little time to understand some of the characters’ motivations for their actions, particularly Callum’s ‘conversion’ to the Liberation Militia. Mahfouz’s poetic style works well with Callum and Sephy’s occasional monologues, and Agyepong carries the emotional weight of the play with skill and conviction.
With Simon Kenny’s stark red and black design, there is a dark, chilling dystopian edge, evocative of the mood of 1984 and look of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a dysfunctional community where violence and resentment often erupt. Space and constriction are reflected in the design – Noughts are cramped, hemmed in by their lack of opportunity. Crosses sprawl across the stage, displaying the trappings of wealth and power. Kenny’s use of TV screens embedded in the set design allow news reports and CCTV footage to assist the storytelling, along with Joshua Drualus Pharo’s sharp lighting design.
Gripping and compelling, this production should serve as a wake-up call to us all.