FringeReview UK 2019
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 Joshua Drualus Pharo’s deft smoky lighting. Arun Ghosh and Xana’s soundworld is cleverly calibrated to muted violence. Till March 23rd then touring till May 11th.
Noughts & Crosses is one of those iconic books that breaks open racism like a negative blown up and suddenly projected. And you see yourself.
Malorie Blackman’s novel has been dramatized on radio and TV, and in Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation it comes home in the most visceral realization. Directed by Esther Richardson for Pilot Theatre this is a high-energy production with an eight-strong ensemble.
Noughts are the oppressed whites in a country dominated by the black Crosses, in a kind of recognizably parallel universe. A bit like the U. S. Jim Crow laws, but transposed to the 21st century, there’s a kind of Apartheid operating with a few concessions, like bright Noughts being newly-admitted to elite Cross schools. It’s a concession the Home Secretary Kamal Hedley (Chris Jack) has introduced 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 (Doreen Blackstock) takes refuge in drink, his eldest daughter Minerva (Kimisha Lewis) hardens bitterly. And his younger daughter Sephy (Heather Agyepong)… Well she’s just being born at the start of this, adored by white servant nanny Meggie Macgregor, Jasmine’s ‘friend’ (Lisa Howard). But Noughts have their dignity: Meggie doesn’t back up Jasmine’s infidelity alibi to her politician husband Kamal and the Macgregors are history, except to Sephy. Because her friend Callum Macgregor (Billy Harris) – youngest of three – is the truest she has. They meet secretly together, snatching moments.
There’s a kinetic feel to Simon Kenny’s red and black set: light props like bed, tables, chairs provide flexible scenes combined with moving panels which open or become diaphanous, or allow video projections (Ian William Galloway’s pseudo-BBC) through Joshua Drualus Pharo’s deft smoky lighting. 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. Nothing’s overstated. After recent productions where sound drowns everything, this is inspired. Overall it’s an atmospheric, never hyper-naturalistic production. Enough to allow a swift wrap, even to fluorescent roses. And there’s a projected stairway to…. well not heaven.
There’s naturally more than a tinge of Romeo and Juliet in this tale of missed opportunities, letters delayed, wrong turnings. But it’s set against a backdrop of social deprivation and cultural assumptions – the stunted Noughts, the super-privileged Crosses, the miscegenation that’s second nature: except to the two natures at the heart of this story. Agyepong’s fresh ardent Sephy (short for Persephone) lights up her scenes – and 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.
Harris is able to move 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.
So when they deny each other for the best of reasons – or when Sephy calls Callum a ‘blank’ – basically 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.
The other six cast enjoying core roles, also take on everything from school-kids to soldiers and politicians. Daniel Copeland as Callum’s father Ryan illustrates the slow avuncular wrath of a man pushed to the limit when Callum’s older sister Lynette dies.
Driven to a three-year breakdown when she was beaten up for having a relationship with a Cross, Lynette commits suicide, as her posthumous letter informs Callum alone. It’s a catalyst, another of Blackman’s twists where deprivation impacts mental health.
Jack Condon’s Jude, Callum’s elder brother is effective as a sinewy snarl with bunched vengeance. He pushes their father, Ryan, to join the Liberation Militia (LM), a violent terrorist organisation against Cross supremacy. Their first act is to bomb a cafe, but the warning’s insufficient (at least Ryan innocently thinks) and acting on a dark hint from Jude Callum hauls Sephy out in time. The father’s caught though; the plot inexorably builds to confrontation and tragedy.
Of the remaining actors there’s fine work from Blackstock as the palpably flawed but brokenly loving Jasmine; Howard’s tough-tender, wrenching Meggie; and Lewis’ finally softening Minerva. Jack well evokes a Home Secretary nearer our own time, but in fact Jack ensures we see Kamal Hadley differently: as a corrupt, vengeful hardliner determined to keep the status quo. A part like Condon’s allows little shade but carries as far as its inscrutable human sliver allows.
This is a drama stripped and limber, essentials showing and dissolving. Aimed at young adults and all of us it manages something else in its thrills: a cry for love and tolerance. Surely Blackman too would applaud.