Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal has topicality top-up amid rise of Black Lives Matter

Effie Ansah and James Arden, left, in rehearsal for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s revival of Noughts & Crosses is even more topical than its award-winning 2019 premiere.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia, rife with racism, will be on tour from this autumn to spring 2023, opening on home turf at York Theatre Royal from September 16 to 24.

“Yeah, things have changed,” says Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, whose original production played the Theatre Royal in April 2019. “That makes it really interesting to put it on again now.

“What’s changed is that, obviously the pandemic was a huge moment, but what also happened in 2020, the murder of George Floyd, had a massive impact across the world.

“There we were, teetering out of the first lockdown, with this huge anger about the state of the world; people taking to the streets to have a proper conversation for the first time about racial injustice, which had been swept under the carpet before that.

“Even though it was deeply painful, there are always possibilities of change at these times, and so people who hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in the discussion, or hadn’t been aware of the issue, were suddenly alive to it because of Black Lives Matter.”

In Blackman’s Romeo & Juliet story for our times, Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses come racial and social divides as a segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

When violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger. Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Noughts & Crosses explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world where black rules over white. 

Pilot’s premiere – launched before the BBC television adaptation – was seen by more than 30,000 people on tour, 40 per cent of them being aged under 20, en route winning the award for excellence in touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards.

The 2022-23 revival is expected to draw big numbers again, not least among the young target audience. “The whole topic of racial equality has really been taken up by university institutions and teachers talking about it, especially about decolonising the curriculum,” says Esther.

“So, suddenly there was a wider focus on what Pilot had been focusing on before the pandemic, but this is a conversation that everyone should have been participating in, just as we were by staging Crongton Knights, Noughts & Crosses, and before my time at Pilot, Roy Williams’s Antigone.”

George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has been the tipping point for racial equality to be taken more seriously, not least in the classroom. “Continuing Proficient Development sessions for teachers now sell out to help them address prejudice, racism and every other form of discrimination that young people may encounter at school,” says Esther.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“But the downside is that we’re in a time where so-called ‘culture wars’ are prevalent, where it’s prescribed that you must be on one side or the other, and that doesn’t help, stirring up strong feelings and even hatred.

“I’ve just been looking at the statistics for hate crimes in 2020-2021 and regrettably they’ve increased. The Home Office points to the reaction to Black Lives Matter as the most likely reason, leading to a rise in right-wing intolerance.

“That’s why Noughts & Crosses is so important because it’s an educative piece of theatre, a powerful story, a love story too, where young people get caught up forbidden love, and very often people have left the show seeing things through a different lens.

“We have a lot of evidence of how it’s not only been taken on in schools, but also by audiences in general who say how it has helped to change their awareness. That will be our mission again in bringing the play back.”

The Noughts & Crosses cast – bigger by two than last time – will be fronted by Effie Ansah and James Arden in their first leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

“I saw the open call, which was great, because opportunities like this don’t often come around,” says Effie. “So, I submitted a self-tape and contacted my agent to let her know.

“Prior to this, I’d actually submitted a time the first time Pilot did it, but I didn’t hear anything so perhaps I’d missed the deadline.”

This time, she was picked, to her delight. “I feel like I’ve wanted for the longest time to get my head around a black, confrontational female lead, and Sephy is all those things,” says Effie. “She’s young, complex, naïve, going on this incredible journey where she discovers her flaws and the flaws of her society.”

James, who is not represented by an agent at present, was tipped off about the auditions by his housemate. “The only experience I had of Noughts & Crosses was auditioning for the TV series, and I have to say Callum is a completely different beast in the play; much more exciting,” he says.

“Sephy and Callum get to tell the story more themselves, and telling it through soliloquies is an amazing opportunity. The play is epic, Shakespearean.”

Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses will then tour from September 27 to November 26 and January 17 to April 1 2023.

Copyright of The Press, York