Skip to content

Noughts & Crosses

by on 3 February 2023

Start Crossed Lovers

Noughts & Crosses

by Malorie Blackman, adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz

Pilot Theatre at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 11th February, then on tour until 1st April

Review by Brent Muirhouse

As soon as the first seconds of light slowly pulsated on the boards of the Rose Theatre, accompanied by a disconcerting mechanical hum, it became clear that just as in Malorie Blackman’s 2006 novel the intention of this stage version of Noughts & Crosses was to create an unsettling experience for those watching on. 

It takes place in an alternative history, a speculative fiction where society is segregated between the Crosses, a dominant elite class, and the Noughts, at the poor end of society, with access to something seemingly as simple as orange juice far beyond their economic means and status.  This vitamin C-laden nectar is a kind of leitmotif in the play, present in moments of comedy and tragedy, and in the initial scenes between Sephy Hadley (Effie Ansah), a Cross, and Callum McGregor (James Arden), a Nought, whose secret friendship transcends the barriers the system that they live in places upon them.  They’ve met years before as children, with Callum’s mother Meggie (Emma Keele) employed by Sephy’s mother and father, Jasmine (Amie Buhari) and Kamal Hadley (Daniel Norford), the latter a senior and influential politician with sights on top office.  However, Meggie is fired by Jasmine in the early scenes, setting the undertone of the increasing tensions in society for the rest of the piece, as a battle between those with power and opportunity and those without grows.

What is a dark and challenging premise is driven by a committed cast and some skill in Effie Ansah and James Arden’s debut lead performances in their characters treading between a rapidly escalating multitude of emotions.  Ansah in particular moves seamlessly between sweet naivety and a powerful presence as a figurehead challenging the views of society.  The work of Nathaniel McCloskey capturing the boundless anger of Callum’s brother Jude should also be praised, and it is Daniel Copeland’s vivacity in his performance as Ryan McGregor that routinely steals the audience’s gaze. 

Really drawing us into Sephy and Callum’s world is the set design and lighting, a series of square panels and infra-red inspired strips, particularly effective and creating a darkness that serves to emphasize the play’s narrative.  Designer Simon Kenny describes wanting to ‘create a world that we absolutely recognise and understand, but somehow isn’t quite what we expect’, resulting in a cleverly dystopian feel, despite Noughts & Crosses heavily reflecting much of the reality of the strife for social equality.  Use of video and audio loops throughout creates a continuum of Orwellian unease, helping to underscore much of the play’s challenging narratives and harshness of character arcs.  At times, I wondered if the volume of the performers needed to practically be ramped up to match the impact and be heard, but considered it possible that director Esther Richardson’s intention was to highlight the difference in size of the individual against the combined weight of society and its pressures.

In the director’s programme notes, Richardson recalls a conversation with Malorie Blackman, where the author stated that her greatest wish was for Noughts & Crosses to become less and not more relevant.  Whilst countless events over recent years and within the week I write this review prove it is sadly still far from becoming no longer reflective of society today, this hard-hitting production of Noughts & Crosses touring the UK will serve as a powerful reminder and educator that a world of equal opportunity must be at the forefront of any meaningful government agenda and the very foundations of just human society.

Perhaps the most pertinent sign of Noughts & Crosses’ impact here was that it kept a large party of teenagers from a local school engaged in theatre, with a complex, layered theme told through a character-driven plot, and investing in the plight of the leads.  The play educates and engages through emotive means and, leaving the theatre walking home in the darkness, I felt a sense of unease and disturbance that even as I stepped into suburbia and the real world outside, the themes of Noughts & Crosses remain plainly relevant.

Brent Muirhouse, February 2023

Photography by Robert Day

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: