NOUGHTS & CROSSES
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 27th March, 2019
Malorie Blackman’s seminal YA novel puts a spin on Romeo and Juliet, setting the love story in a parallel world that is rife with segregation and discrimination. Now it comes to the stage in this pacey new adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz. Simon Kenny’s set has movable flats that bear the 3×3 grid of the time-honoured game, and incorporates elements of Joshua Drualus Pharo’s lighting design, to create a stylish, non-naturalistic backing for the action. For all its stylisation, this is a world we recognise all too well…
Society is split into Noughts and Crosses, the former being the underclass, the oppressed white race, with the latter holding all the power, the wealth, and even the orange juice. Young Callum (from Nought family the Macgregors) and Persephone (Sephy) Hadley grow up together, but theirs is an unconventional friendship, going against cultural prejudices on both sides of the divide. Sephy’s dad is Home Secretary, striving to placate an increasingly unruly and pro-active population, while of course maintaining the status quo. The measures he takes are far from enough to appease the militant Noughts, and it’s not long before a terrorist act takes place.
As the central young couple, Heather Agyepong is a spirited and principled Sephy, with an equally appealing Billy Harris as Callum. They are supported by a strong cast of half a dozen, including Lisa Howard – heartrending as Callum’s mum, Doreene Blackstock as Sephy’s frazzled and alcoholic mum, Daniel Copeland as Callum’s dad, who becomes radicalised by his other son Jude (a strong Jack Condon). Kimisha Lewis impresses as Sephy’s prejudiced older sister Minerva, while Chris Jack’s Kamal, Sephy’s politician dad, convinces totally.
Director Esther Richardson keeps a naturalistic tone among the spots of narration, and uses expressionistic movements to reveal the characters’ inner lives as well as to stage difficult-to-stage moments (like a bomb going off). The music and sound design of Arun Ghosh and Xana add to the disquiet and sense of impending doom. It all adds up to a thoroughly gripping piece of theatre, excellently and compellingly staged.
It’s a provocative piece. By flipping the races, Malorie Blackman makes us face the dystopian society in which we continue to live. Even minor details are telling, like when a Nought complains that sticking plasters are not available in their skin tone.
This thought-provoking, tragic drama covers a lot of ground, bringing to the fore issues that have woefully become more urgent in recent times.