Review: Noughts and Crosses. Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Noughts & Crosses

Belgrade Theatre

24th January 2023

‘Noughts & Crosses’, the first novel in Malorie Blackman’s young-adult series, has recently celebrated its 21st birthday, making it only a little older than its two leading characters.  Their powerful story of connection in the face of racial hatred and prejudice resonated strongly upon its publication, leading to five further novels, a TV series, and a stage production.  Adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz from Blackman’s source material, and directed by Esther Richardson, the play is a revealing  look at social inequality and identity, and explores the lengths some people will go to in order to try and make sense of the world they’re living in. 

Friends from birth, Sephy Hadley (played here by Effie Ansah) and Callum McGregor (James Arden) have always had an unbreakable bond, but as they’ve got older, they’ve had to hide their friendship and make contact in secret.  Sephy is from a prominent Cross family, the dominant race who hold the highest ranks in society, go the best schools, have the wealthiest incomes, and are seen as superior.  Callum, a nought, is on the other end of the social spectrum, viewed as beneath the Crosses, segregated and refused access to decent education and employment.  Where Blackman throws her curveball is that the noughts are those of white skin, and the powerful Crosses are their dark-skinned oppressors.  Sephy’s father Kamal (Daniel Norford) is a leading politician, doing his best to skew everything in favour of the Crosses and seeing that the noughts lose out, while a secret vigilante force of noughts known as the Liberation Militia is building and threatening to overthrow everything, by whatever means necessary.  Sephy and Callum find themselves caught in a Romeo & Juliet tale of forbidden affection in the midst of social war, and the surface disparity in their skin tones tells the bigger story of two races on the verge of tearing themselves apart.

‘Noughts & Crosses’ is a truly eye-opening piece of fiction, although so many of its themes are so deeply rooted in our own history that it often feels more like fact.  In holding a mirror up to the world and reversing the social standing of the two skin colours, Blackman’s narrative is hugely powerful.  These may be invented characters, but the struggles and divisive oppression versus supremacy that they go through are real, and seeing it racially-flipped is a massive expose of white privilege, to the point that it is hugely humbling.  Blackman’s novel is written in the first person and told from the two protagonists’ perspectives in alternating sequence, and in doing so gets deeply inside their thought processes, some of which is lost in the translation to stage.  Sabrina Mahfouz’s script gets Blackman’s tale across efficiency and effectively, though a little less intimately and losing a shade of Blackman’s grace of language.  Still, Mahfouz ensures that we invest in these characters and live their struggle along with them, and all of the key moments of the original story are covered and delivered well.  Director Esther Richardson’s vision of a bleak disconnected Britain in turmoil is brought together cleverly, enhanced further by Ben Cowens’ stark lighting design and Simon Kenny’s abstract set of grid panels, which frame the stage and provide surprising flexibility of staging.  Told with little more than chairs, tables and the odd bed, there is always a strong sense of location, and the use of multimedia panels for news coverage and other imagery is highly effective.

Portraying such raw and visceral material is no easy task, and the cast mostly do well.  Ironically, the actors playing the “inferior” nought characters give the stronger performances, with James Arden excelling as Callum, growing in desperation as the story progresses and being torn apart between his love for Sephy and his duty to his family (Daniel Copeland, Nathaniel McClosky and Emma Keele, all brilliant).  Effie Ansah is also really engaging and effective as Sephy, showing a convincing journey from naïve schoolgirl to independent womanhood.  The performances of the other leading Cross characters are less effective, often feeling like actors speaking words rather than portrayals of real people, and this lack of nuance and believability does rob the story of some of its power at times.

‘Noughts & Crosses’ isn’t always an easy watch, tender at times, harrowing at others, but the power behind its message is undeniable, and makes it essential viewing.  Seeing what so many countless generations of our fellow human beings have had to go through in the search for equality is an opportunity that should not be missed.  ‘Noughts & Crosses’ goes beyond star-crossed lovers and ‘live and let live’ platitudes, and demands that we must all join together and do better.

‘Noughts & Crosses’ runs at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 28th January 2023 before continuing its UK tour.

Performance run time 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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