Sitting amongst the excitable students that make up ninety five percent of tonight’s audience, I avoid eavesdropping in on their delicious dramas (tempting as they are) and focus instead on the symbol on stage facing us. When the show opens, its lit against the red back drop: the nought a perfect circle around the cross. It’s no bigger than the cross, nor does the cross pierce the circle. Their size and diameter match each other exactly, so therefore, would they cancel each other out?
We immediately meet the beautiful, privileged, Persephone Hedley (Sephy) and her best friend, earnest and loyal Callum. They are young teens, bound by their growing love and understanding of one another, but forced by their families’ opposing social status to meet in secret.
Sephy is a Cross, the dominant, superior class. Her dark skin alone would automatically place her in this category, but her father, Kamal, is the Home Secretary with designs on fast becoming the Prime Minister. Kamal, played confidently and effortlessly by Daniel Norford, is ruthless; keen oppressor of the light skinned, lower class Noughts, where people like Callum and his family struggle to survive.
Both families grapple with the constraints their current status subjects them to whilst living alongside each other unharmoniously. The Noughts, powered by their resistance group, Liberation Militia, push back upon the oppression with catastrophic circumstances.
Writer, Sabrina Mahfouz, and director, Esther Richardson, has passionately adapted the important novel by Malorie Blackman, and through the plights of each character, shows us the terror our society has already been capable of.
What punctuates this story so perfectly is the way this altered reality is whispered to us through the striking backdrop. The characters dress like we do now, they meet in coffee shops, watch TV and go to school. But the way the costumes and striking set (Simon Kenny) is designed – splashed with red – indicates something has changed. Its a warning, a raw emotion; framing the flashes of violence in a way that pulsates against the climax of a scene. The actors’ ability to work with every bit of it is impressive – utilising it to transform between the rapid scenes.
Music and Sound (Xana, Arun Ghosh, Adam McReady) sear through me as the graphic scenes unfold. I feel the isolation and loneliness, each character’s vulnerability and instability palpable to the point whereat, internally, I’m screaming for a sliver of happiness.
The moments of physical theatre (Movement Director, Corey Campbell) are where I personally feel the story really comes alive. Watching the small cast of eight operating and mould the props, I see the benefits of a genuine collaboration take effect. Look out for the coffee shop scene – I was transfixed by lighting design (Ben Cowens) here – visually very impressive.
Hoping to watch my native Burtonian, James Arden as Callum, I was pleasantly surprised by the understudy performance of Tom Coleman. His sincere portrayal of a hardworking, intelligent teenager unable to thrive because of his constraints, at times, by his own family, is heart-breaking theatre.
Nathaniel McCloskey’s performance as Callum’s older brother, Jude, is my favourite of the night (not by much, but credit where its due) A boiling pot of rage – he does just enough to have me empathising with him, but his own pride, jealousy and misplaced anger reveals how dangerous his kind of retribution can be.
Fellow understudy, Abiola Efunshile’s portrayal as the privileged but hopeful Sephy is compelling. It’s perhaps Sephy who suffers the most through this story. Her supposed advantages offer her nothing she needs or wants. She feels things so deeply and could make such a difference had the perimeters her people enforce not be so impenetrable.
Daniel Copeland as Callum and Jude’s loving but resentful father, Ryan, shifts comfortably between a protective family man and someone teetering on the edge of reason. Copeland also assuredly steps up tonight as understudy for the Liberation Militia informant/traitor Andrew Dorn.
The contrasting mothers: Crosses’ Jasmine (Amie Buhari) and Noughts’ Meggie (Emma Keele) accomplish their roles well. As does Ebony Feare as Sephy’s distant, fragile sister, Minerva.
Perhaps due to my fellow audience being largely teenagers, I feel the restlessness swell towards the close of the first act. The second act however is shorter. It’s a very heavy piece; the various monologues – although I appreciate contain vital information that fleshes out both reason and action – perhaps worked against the notorious ‘show, don’t tell’ advice. Very much a dramatic piece, but I think the rare, amusing moments could land better which may have re-engaged the members of the audience that started to drift away.
But it’s an important story, and I’m thrilled to watch this thoughtful adaptation take effect. I will leave undoubtedly drawing comparisons to various historical moments but with the knowledge that we can always start again.
Noughts & Crosses is showing until 1st April. Make time to watch it.