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Noughts & Crosses

by on 28 September 2022

All for Nought

Noughts & Crosses

by Malorie Blackman, adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz

Pilot Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 1st October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

I vaguely remember, quite a long time ago, a TV series in which the power was flipped, and women were in control.  They (the women) turned out to be nothing like as inspiring as you’d hope them to be.  I think the basic idea was probably that all humans will behave badly if you give them the means and opportunity but, as I say, it was a long time ago.

Noughts & Crosses applies the same idea to race (it’s interesting that such a simple idea isn’t used more often).  The dark-skinned Crosses hold all the power, which they wield over the light-skinned Noughts.  Two central characters: Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought form a friendship as children and grow up with difficulty within the system that in fact oppresses both of them.

Occasionally, the Crosses dispense a little dose of liberalism to keep the Noughts happy and in the case of this plot, Callum and two others are allowed places at the prestigious school attended only by Crosses, including Sephy.  There is a predictable, violent backlash, bringing to mind the US civil rights movement, in particular the shocking 1968 footage of 6yr old Ruby Bridges trying to go to school in Louisiana (the first black child at a white school).  Ruby had to be accompanied by federal marshals to protect her from the enraged mob resisting the start of desegregation in schools. Callum is bullied relentlessly while he’s at school, as is Sephy for standing up for him.

The storyline, aimed at a teenage and young adult audience, is simple but effective.  Sephy (Effie Ansah) and Callum (James Arden) fall in love as they grow older but are forced apart by their circumstances.  Frustrated at every turn, Callum ultimately joins a direct action group, Sephy goes to boarding school.  When the two reunite it is far from straightforward.

Effie Ansah delivers a skilled and endearing performance both as a child growing into a young woman and as an individual struggling to free herself from her oppressive environment.  James Arden presents an authentic portrayal of a man victimised by the same environment and forced to compromise the best of himself by resorting to violence.  Similarly Daniel Copeland, as Callum’s father is another poignant example of a good man doing his best but ultimately worn down by the system in which he is comprehensively trapped. 

Noughts & Crosses takes a swipe at the patriarchy too.  Sephy’s parents Jasmine and Kamal, played respectively by Amie Buhari and Chris Jack, though winning in material terms, are an unhappy couple.  Kamal’s powerful government job keeps him away from his family and leaves his wife at home, alone with a bottle.  Amie Buhari is suitably enraged and sad while Chris Jack plays Kamal as chillingly oblivious to the responsibility he bears for his family’s disintegration.

Simon Kenny’s set, echoing a noughts and crosses game and involving flat square blocks which become rooms, doors, cupboards and TV screens, works perfectly.  There is some great staging – at one extreme a bombing which is strikingly well done with lighting (Ben Cowens), choreography (Corey Campbell) and sound (Arun Ghosh & Xana).  Less noticeable but still an enhancement to the whole work are the small, square tables which are used as many things including school desks and the lengthy table at which Sephy’s family eat, but which are also seen to be constantly turning.  There are small but unnerving details to be found in this production too, such as the over-enunciation of a western surname at one point, which give it a level of quality and sophistication not always present in productions which seek to educate as well as entertain.  It’s thought-provoking, but in the most unobtrusive way; it picks apart the nature of prejudice and the corrosive effect of power.

There were several school parties in the theatre on Tuesday night.  Judging by the audience reaction, all of them were fully engaged with the drama and appreciative of it but it’s also quite possible to enjoy this work as an adult.  Pilot Theatre clearly knows what it’s doing, this is a good, interesting and quite moving production.

Eleanor Lewis, September 2022

Photography by Robert Day

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