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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Noughts & Crosses

Pilot Theatre and Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Theatre Royal York

Genre: Adaptation, Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton


Low Down

Malorie Blackman’s novel has been dramatized on by Sabrina Mahfouz. It’s directed by Esther Richardson for Pilot Theatre with an eight-strong ensemble in partnership with Pilot Theatre and Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Mercury Theatre Colchester and Theatre Royal York. Simon Kenny’s red and black set with moving panels which become diaphanous, allowing video projections (Ian William Galloway’s pseudo-BBC) through Ben Cowens’ lighting. Arun Ghosh and Xana’s soundworld is calibrated to muted violence.

Till February 25th then touring.


Noughts & Crosses is one of those iconic books that breaks open racism like a negative blown up and projected. You see yourself, as one character remarks, in morse code.

Malorie Blackman’s novel has been dramatized on radio and TV, and in Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation – seen before here on its first tour in March 2019 – it comes home in the most visceral realization. Again directed by Esther Richardson for Pilot Theatre this is a high-energy production with (now) a ten-strong ensemble, two more than the 2019 original.

Noughts are oppressed whites in a country dominated by Black Crosses, in a recognizably parallel universe: U. S. Jim Crow laws dashed with Apartheid, but transposed to the 21st century, there’s quasi-Apartheid operating with concessions, like bright Noughts being newly-admitted to elite Cross schools. It’s a concession Home Secretary Kamal Hedley (Daniel Norford) introduces as a sop to discontent and militant Nought activities. After all elsewhere in the world black and white people live on terms of equality. But Kamal’s iron grip is having none of it.

His family’s another thing: his wife Jasmine (Amie Buhari) takes refuge in drink, his eldest daughter Minerva (Abiola Efunshile) hardens bitterly. And his younger daughter Sephy (Effie Ansah)… Well she’s just being born at the start of this, adored by white servant nanny Meggie Macgregor, Jasmine’s ‘friend’ (Emma Keele). But Noughts have their dignity: Meggie doesn’t back up Jasmine’s alibi to her politician husband. The MacGregors are history, except to Sephy. Because her friend Callum Macgregor (James Arden) – youngest of three – is the truest she has. They meet secretly together, snatching moments.

There’s a kinetic feel to Simon Kenny’s sleek, economical red and black set: light props like bed, tables, chairs provide flexible scenes combine with moving panels which open or become diaphanous, or allow video projections (Ian William Galloway’s pseudo-BBC) through Ben Cowen’s new smoky lighting with strikingly deft spotlighting. There’s a glimmering seaside floor too with turquoise blue lighting in subtle strips, and a whoomphing explosion of light when a bomb detonation’s suggested: Arun Ghosh and Xana’s soundworld is cleverly calibrated to muted violence. Corey Campbell’s movement too is all of a piece with both, tightly evocative. Nothing’s overstated. Enough to allow a swift wrap, even to fluorescent roses. And there’s a projected stairway to…. well not heaven.

Naturally Romeo and Juliet tints this tale of missed opportunities, letters delayed, wrong turnings. But it’s set against a backdrop of social deprivation and cultural assumptions –stunted Noughts, super-privileged Crosses, miscegenation that’s second nature: except to the two natures at the heart of this story. Ansah’s fresh ardent Sephy (short for Persephone) lights up her scenes – she’s often on stage – with an infectious warmth that’s troubled, skittish and radiant by turns. Sephy’s transformation into a passionately articulate woman heartens, as it breaks your heart.

Arden moves seamlessly from clean-cut youth to hunched loser and over-pumped freedom fighter within a sympathetic range that always melts to Sephy: though this dramatization does concertina his development abruptly and the latter stage forces both him and Ansah to an occasional shoutiness, where the absolutely necessary message stands and can over-deliver itself.

So when they deny each other for the best of reasons – Sephy calls Callum a ‘blank’ – a kind of N word – the tender shock these two register is just a little heartbreaking. It’s a fine chemistry allowing other performers to breathe out from it.

Daniel Copeland returning as Callum’s father Ryan illustrates the slow avuncular wrath of a man pushed to the limit when Callum’s older sister Lynette reaches her limit of a three-year breakdown beaten up for loving a Cross. It’s a catalyst, another of Blackman’s twists where deprivation impacts mental health.

Nathaniel McCloskey’s Jude, Callum’s elder brother is a sinewy snarl with bunched vengeance. Jude allows less shade but McCloskey convincingly semaphores how Jude’s drawn in, further radicalised with a sliver of fraternal care through armour. Neatly, Jude pushes their father, Ryan, to action then roles are reversed.

There’s fine work from Buhari as the palpably flawed, brokenly loving Jasmine, finely understating her drink and refusal to leave privilege; Keele’s tough-tender, wrenching Meggie; and Efunshile’s finally softening Minerva. Norford’s sinewy Kamal evokes a Home Secretary nearer our own time, but ensures we see Kamal Hadley differently: a corrupt, vengeful hardliner determined to keep the status quo. Tom Coleman portrays a range of hurt-gnarled hardmen, Ebony Feare voices a spectrum of sympathy in authority figures.

Despite an awkward break two-thirds through for narrative reasons, this is a drama stripped and limber, essentials showing and dissolving. And it keeps giving. Exquisite moments I didn’t remember: ”Your amazing hair” from Sephy drawing Callum: brilliant race-reversal. Aimed at young adults and all of us it manages something else in its thrills: a cry for love and tolerance. Young adults both remained rapt and cheered spontaneously at a final act of defiance. Surely Blackman too would applaud.