REVIEW: Pilot Theatre’s detention centre tale The Bone Sparrow, York Theatre Royal

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi, the boy dreamer in refugee captivity in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow

The Bone Sparrow, Pilot Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal *** Performances: 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2pm, 7.30pm, Saturday, then on tour. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guidance: 11 plus

ZANA Fraillon’s 2016 Australian detention centre novel, The Bone Sparrow, is rooted in the power of the imagination in brutal circumstances.

S. Shakthidharan, an Australian playwright born in Sri Lanka with Tamil ancestry, retains the importance of imagination in his stage adaptation for York company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere.

Pilot’s pioneering social, cultural and political theatre is targeted at teenage audiences – Leeds Trinity Academy pupils in smartest blazers were seated in the two rows in front of your reviewer, who passed two more excited school groups en route to Thursday afternoon’s matinee – and Shakthidharan and director Esther Richardson have made two bold decisions.

One is to entrust young audiences with taking in all the minutiae of a highly theatrical, if episodic production that runs to Shakespearean lengths, as the clock ticked towards 10.20 from a 7.30pm start on press night.

Australian writer S Shakthidharan

The other is to place so much faith in imagination, in tandem with our need for stories as a mechanism for survival in the face of adversity, in a piece full of symbolism, from the bone sparrow of the title to a talkative, comical, “riduckulous” duck that looks like Shakespeare (should that be a Duck Bill Platypus?).

All is seen through a 12-year-old child’s eyes, albeit with the writer’s secondary voice ever present too. That means not everything is easy to comprehend, which in turns makes Richardson’s production more challenging for younger audience members, although those Leeds schoolchildren were fully attentive throughout.

Could the storytelling have been clearer? Could the running time have been shorter? Yes to both questions, and potentially, a snappier running time would have demanded a more concise, less florid form of storytelling.

Yet, to counter that instinctive reaction, there is a freedom to the storytelling that matches the birds seen in flight so often in Daniel Denton’s beautiful video designs and illustrations. Not everything, however, lifts off from the page amid the text-heavy burden of subplots.

The 12-year-old boy is Subhi (Yaamin Chowdhury), who was born in an Australian refugee camp and remains a limbo kid there with his mother (Kiran L Dadlani) and his firebrand sister Queenie (Siobhan Athwal), their persecuted Rohingya Muslim family having fled the violence of Myanmar without the father.

Elmi Rashid Elmi’s Eli, left, Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and Siobhan Athwal’s Queenie in a heated scene in The Bone Sparrow

The play begins in Subhi’s world of his imagination, as he is shown forever making drawings in his little book, as depicted in Denton’s backdrops.

Suddenly the fences close all around him in Miriam Nabarro’s design, and the daily dirge of a future constantly on hold is mirrored in the menu of endless porridge meals and confinement to sleeping on steel beds in tents.

One guard, Harvey (Devesh Kishore) strives to be considerate, even helpful; another, the over-assertive Beaver (Mackenzie Scott), calls the refugees by their numbers only and is a racist thug and a bully, clashing with Elmi Rashid Elmi’s freedom-craving Eli.

Into the story – leading to comparisons with The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – comes the outsider, Jimmie (Mary Roubos), an illiterate but inquisitive girl from up the hill who wants Subhi to read the stories collated in her late mother’s notebook.

As with Subhi’s bursts of imagination – where he conjures the seas he has never seen – these stories are told with the camp barriers removed and the mythical characters of newly-weds Oto and Anka represented by oversized puppet heads, miming the horrors of facing another menacing regime.

The girl from the outside: Mary Roubos’s Jimmie

There is humour and mystery, escape and discovery, drama and danger in this account of a burgeoning friendship, captured so well by Chowdhury and Roubos, as it is interwoven with the grim realities of camp life.

Is Jimmie real or pulled from Subhi’s dreamscapes? The way that Roubos plays her at first makes you wonder, another plus to her engaging performance opposite Chowdhury’s Subhi, a resilient boy bursting with restless thoughts, undaunted by authority and stymied circumstances.

For comic relief, look no further than puppeteer Jummy Faruq and his Duck, as opinionated as Ray Alan’s indiscreet Lord Charles.

Yet like Arun Ghosh’s score, that comic relief takes a back seat. Such is the overpowering shadow of this week’s plight of fleeing Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in Poland and beyond, and the intolerant message given by Brexit and now the Nationality and Borders bill over here, when there is such need for a common humanity, heightened by pandemic times.

Alas the bitter reality is that it will take more than a captive boy’s imagination or a novel to trigger change, but everything must start with highlighting what’s wrong and positing how we could make a better world.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Yaamin Chowdhury’s Subhi and fellow Pilot Theatre cast members, against the backdrop of Daniel Denton’s video design, in Pilot Theatre’s co-production with York Theatre Royal, Derby Playhouse, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester

How Australian writer Shakthi and York’s Pilot Theatre came together to tell Subhi’s tale from inside a detention centre

Yaamin Chowdhury as Rohingya refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow is international, not only in its subject matter of asylum seekers but in its journey from page to stage.

Artistic director Esther Richardson and her cast have ‘met’ playwright S. Shakthidharan only on Zoom, although he does plan to travel from Australia to Britain later during the tour of a co-production mounted with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Shakthi, as he is known for short and on the corner of his Zoom screen for this interview, is a writer, storyteller, composer and film and theatre director-producer, from western Sydney, with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

“The commission came from Esther. She contacted me out of the blue,” says Shakthi. “She’d heard about the play I wrote and premiered in Australia in 2019 [Counting And Cracking], and I think she’d read the script.”

This was no ordinary debut play. Staged by Belvoir and Co-Curious at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, his script won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize and the New South Wales Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting; the three-hour epic production won seven Helpmann and three Sydney Theatre Awards.

“Esther had been interested in adapting Zana Fraillon’s book for some time and so she approached me,” recalls Shakti. “When I read it, I immediately connected with it because I’d worked with a lot of asylum seekers in Australia and was familiar with the different types of stories that were being told.”

In the story by children and young adults’ novelist Fraillon, Subhi is a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee boy, born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of her distant homeland. Life behind the fences is all he has ever known, but as he grows, his imagination grows too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history, but will Subhi and Jimmie both find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

“Subhi, the protagonist, lives in the world of his imagination and doesn’t realise what’s going on around him,” says Shakthi. “Instead, he’s lost in his own charming world, and it’s fascinating that he can have such an enchanting world in such a brutal situation.”

By now, Shakthi had been joined on the Zoom screen by his own young son, awoken from his sleep – it was 8.45pm in Sydney – by the sound of voices.

“So often we are beaten down by the world,” says Shakthi. “We reshape ourselves to fit into it. Subhi’s story is different. In The Bone Sparrow this imaginative young boy discovers within himself a strength that will change the world around him.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age story and yet so much more. The Bone Sparrow is by turns a wondrous tale of epic, mythical adventure; a realistic appraisal of what it means to grow up without freedom; and a vision of renewed solidarity across our supposed divisions.”

Jimmie’s story is as significant to Shakthi as Subhi’s tale. “Immigration, asylum and race is such an important issue in Australia, where it has swung elections for 20 years now and changed government policy,” he says.

“What the children’s relationship does is bring out a common humanity within people, unlike so much of the dialogue, both by those who are well meaning and those with no compassion. Subhi and Jimmie’s friendship obliterates all that: they are two kids who develop a love for each other and have a lot of fun together as well.”

Shakthi continues: “It’s a political play but it’s not a didactic one. I love works that present the complexity of humanity, so the central relationship is so important here.

“What wasn’t in the book so much is that it’s a Rohingya Muslim family. In Zana’s story it’s portrayed with a lighter touch, but I’ve been very keen to have the Rohingya community involved in the project.”

Mackenzie Scott, as Beaver, left, and  Elmi Rashid Elmi,  as Eli, in the detention centre in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

To that end, Esther has liaised with the British Rohingya community, based in Bradford and especially with Sirazul Islam, who began the project as a consultant and is now the assistant director. Like Subhi, Sirazul was born into a refugee camp, and he speaks in public about his experiences of being Rohingya.

In addition, the production team has spoken to other Rohingya people and young sanctuary-seekers, who have been consulted on the script. “The play has a stronger sense of that culture now,” says Shakthi.

Reflecting on his own childhood, he says: “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1982; when the riots happened in 1983, it deepened into civil war, and that’s when my family moved to Chandhai in India, hoping to come back to Sri Lanka.

“That’s the thing about war; it can take a while before anyone calls it a war. We moved first to India, then Singapore, then Australia by the time I was three. We never did go back to Sri Lanka. I’m an Australian, with a lot of family in England as the Tamil diaspora spread everywhere.”

Fraillon’s story of Subhi has many resonances for Shakthi. “I understand what it means not to be in your homeland because of your race, and I understand what it means for a relatively small country to descend into violence,” he says.

“Subhi’s tale is one of growing up distanced from his culture, but he reaches a crisis point in his young life where he finds strength in that culture.

“In my case, my parents pushed me into assimilation in Australia, and so I didn’t really connect with my [Tamil] culture until my late-20s.”

Assimilating meant doing things like supporting Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team, recalls Shakthi. “I would follow what my white Australian mates were doing, whether it was music or sport,” he says.

The Pilot Theatre company on stage at York Theatre Royal in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

“But then you find your own culture is far more sophisticated than you realised, and through all that pain of leaving your own country, now I really appreciate both my Sri Lankan culture and my Australian culture, so that’s a bonus that other people don’t have: being able to look at the world in different ways. That stops you from being pompous.”

Addressing the thorny subject of immigration, detention centres and sanctuary seekers, Shakthi says: “You can talk about this stuff endlessly politically, but the thing I always come back to is thinking: ‘is it fair to make one group a scapegoat for everyone else?’.

“The Australian government thinks that putting one group of people in detention will be a deterrent to others, but what does it say about that one group? We have to find other ways.

“It’s very easy to make people have knee-jerk reactions on this issue – all that talk of ‘taking our jobs and protecting our borders’ – but the success of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is co-dependent on welcoming people. You can’t have one without the other. Generally, when people come, they work their butts off, doing jobs others aren’t willing to do.

“That’s why Jimmie’s relationship with Subhi is so vital in the story. She doesn’t apply labels to him. She just sees him as a boy and a friend.”

Living in suburban western Sydney, Shakthi is in a community where many migrants have settled. “In its time, it’s had the most diverse population in the world,” he says. “Going for a cup of coffee in the morning, you pass every culture.”

Plenty of cups of coffee later, The Bone Sparrow is up and running at York Theatre Royal. “I’ve had a great deal of fun collaborating with Pilot to develop a grand theatricality for this work and deepen its relationship with the Rohingya community,” says Shakthi. “I hope audiences are as delighted and moved by this story as we were in the process of adapting it.”

Pilot Theatre’s premiere of The Bone Sparrow runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, then on tour from March 8 to April 2. York box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

S. Shakthidharan: Writer, storyteller, composer, director and producer for stage and screen

S. Shakthidharan in profile:

Shakthi is a western Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His 2019 debut play, the three-hour epic Counting And Cracking, had a profound effect on the Sri Lankan community in Sydney.

He has a new commission in development with Sydney Festival; a number of plays with Belvoir; a feature film with Felix Media and two new television projects.

He is the artistic director of Kurinji and lead artistic consultant at Co-Curious, a sister company to CuriousWorks, where he was the founder and artistic director from 2003 to 2018.

Seeing asylum through a child’s eyes in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow premiere

Yaamin Chowdhury in rehearsal for his role as refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow

AFTER racism in Noughts & Crosses and gang culture in Crongton Knights, York company Pilot Theatre now address immigration and asylum seekers in The Bone Sparrow.

The world premiere opens tomorrow (25/2/2022) at York Theatre Royal, Pilot’s partners in the third in a series of co-productions with Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Coventry.

Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson directs Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan’s adaptation of children’s author Zana Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia.

Directing a cast of eight, who have been rehearsing in a bubble in the De Grey Rooms and taking lateral flow tests every second day, Esther says: “It’s the biggest project we’ve done since the start of the pandemic, with a team of 12 on the road – the cast and four stage managers – for the tour.

“This show was already on the slate to do in 2022, and we just thought ‘let’s do it’ as we really believe in the importance of the project because how we treat migrants is so topical.

“Immigration and racism are very important subjects, as we ask searching questions about who we are as a country if we’re not going to support those who are fleeing their homes to seek a better life – whereas before Brexit we were seen as a nation that did accept asylum seekers.”

In The Bone Sparrow, refugee Subhi is born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled her violent homeland. Behind the fences, his imagination grows as he grows, until bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history. Will Subhi and Jimmie find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

“The play is set in Australia, where the system for asylum seekers is horrendous, and it’s the one that [Home Secretary] Priti Patel is talking of implementing here,” says Esther.

“The play seeks to raise awareness about detention centres and how people are treated, but it’s also a story of the power of imagination for a boy who is born in a detention centre but has this relentlessly optimistic way of seeing the world through that imagination.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“That’s an important metaphor for everyone, but especially young people, as we come out of the pandemic and those lockdowns.”

The role of Subhi will be played by Yaamin Chowdhury, who says: “I always used to say that kids ‘play pretend’, but I didn’t ‘play pretend’; I ‘play believe’. That’s how Subhi resonates with me.

“Then, doing plays that are political, especially this boy, carrying the story, being the hero of the story, I feel like I’m the custodian of people who are disenfranchised, which is important, no matter what geographical world a story is set in.”

Subhi is 12, Yaamin, 23. “Tapping into my inner child, and a child’s curiosity, is the best way to play this character, and I have to be true to every moment, every stimuli, I can be.

“That can be hard sometimes, when remembering that I can look at the world differently, whereas Subhi can only do so by looking at the outside world through the fence’s diamond shapes.

“A lot of people are hermetically sealed from Subhi’s world, and it’s the harsh reality that seeing is believing only when confronted by his story, but that’s the journey we have to take educate people about the sensitive issues of what’s going on in these detention centres for anyone seeking asylum.”

Esther rejoins: “Subhi has never been able to see the sea, for example, so he has to imagine what the sea looks like as he only has people’s stories to draw on. He’s driving his older sister mad by always asking her what she remembers of living in Burma.”

Just as Subhi uses his imagination, so must the audience. “Theatre is about us doing that,” says Esther. “It’s the human act of profound connection with a story that enables us to empathise or project on to a character to understand someone in a way that only theatre can do.”

Yaamin picks up that point. “Experiencing a play, someone’s story, can change someone, and it’s good to have that feeling that if we have changed someone, we’ve done something right,” he says.

From tomorrow, let the power of theatre meet the power of the imagination at York Theatre Royal.

Pilot Theatre presents The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal, tomorrow (25/2/2022) until March 5, then on tour until April 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

Copyright of The Press, York

Forster and Forster’s The Machine Stops starts again, now online from York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre UPDATED 1/4/2021

Caroline Gruber (Vashti), Maria Gray (Machine 2) and Gareth Aled (Machine 1) in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

AS Covid-19 took its relentless grip, Juliet Forster kept finding her thoughts returning to E M Forster’s The Machine Stops, the stage adaptation she first directed for York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre in 2016.

“What was in my head was how we would be struck by it even more under Covid,” she says.

“Over this last year, I have thought about this piece many times as the world around us seemed to grow more and more like the incredible world that E M Forster imagined.

“And it’s even more striking today than it was at the time: things like human contact and human touch becoming something that’s almost taboo, things that didn’t seem relevant back in 2016 but are really, really striking and even more relevant now.”

This spring, The Machine Stops is starting up all over again, available to watch on a Theatre Royal webcast until April 5. Reactions so far have affirmed Juliet’s own feelings. “People are saying how eerily relevant it is,” she says.

“No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication”: the life that Kuno (Karl Queensborough) wants to escape in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

E M Forster’s 1909 short story is set in a futuristic, dystopian world where humans have retreated far underground and individuals live in isolation in “cells”, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. 

“That’s what has felt very strange, particularly the lack of human contact: the things that we laughed at in 2016, but now we’re all having to try to avoid each other,” says Juliet.

Adapted by Neil Duffield, The Machine Stops premiered in the York Theatre Royal Studio in  May and June 2016 at the outset of a three-venue run and was revived there in February 2017 before embarking on a national tour of nine venues. 

Juliet’s stage premiere won the Stage Production of the Year in the 2016 Hutch Awards. “In the year when Phillip Breen directed the York Minster Mystery Plays on the grandest scale and York Theatre Royal re-opened with Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it wasn’t the expected big hitters that left the deepest impression,” Hutchinson said in The Press, York.

“Instead, an obscure EM Forster sci-fi work, The Machine Stops, became a play for our times in the hands of the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre in the Theatre Royal Studio.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“Amid the stench of Brexit and Trump intolerance, here was a cautionary story of science friction and human heart told superbly artistically by a cast of four, writer Neil Duffield and electronic composers John Foxx and Benge with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.”

Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s artistic director, shares Juliet’s thoughts on The Machine Stops’ rising resonance: “When we produced The Machine Stops in 2016, it already seemed an eerily prescient piece of work. A story-world in which humans have become isolated from one another and living underground, communicating only through screens, offered an engaging space for reflection on perhaps the pitfalls of how our relationship with technology had been evolving,” she says.

“To be able to explore this in a live theatre space with an audience gathered together in person and with their technology switched off made it all the more dynamic a tale.

“It’s fantastic that, having spent the last year in different forms of isolation and on screens, we have the opportunity to share this great production, which will now sing with new meaning, meeting a new audience in a new context.”

The Machine Stops features a soundtrack composed by John Foxx, electronic music pioneer and founder of Ultravox, and analogue synth specialist Benge. The production was directed by Forster and designed by Rhys Jarman, with lighting design by Tom Smith and movement direction by Philippa Vafadari.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

It stars Caroline Gruber as Vashti, Karl Queensborough as Kuno, Maria Gray as Machine/Attendant and Gareth Aled as Machine/Passenger.

Analysing the reasons why The Machine Stops transferred so convincingly to the stage, Juliet suggested in 2017: “When you use human beings to the height of their potential, theatre is at its most interesting; when you realise the incredible ability of human body; but at the same time, you can’t shoehorn that into a play. Here, though, to represent the Machine through movement, it absolutely suited it.

“It also helped that we had the finest soundtrack for a play in living memory, composed by John Foxx and Benge.”

That soundtrack went on to form much of the music on the John Foxx And The Maths album, The Machine, released in 2017 on the Metamatic Records label with artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the designer for David Bowie’s last two studio albums, 2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar.

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

The filmed recording was edited by digital wiz Ben Pugh for its release online, with kind permission granted by the E M Forster estate. “We had taken a three-camera capture of the show in 2016 in the Theatre Royal Studio, when we were thinking of doing a streaming, but we didn’t have permission at the time, but now we do,” says Juliet.

“I asked Ben to do the editing because he’s fantastic at pulling digital theatre shows together, and it works really well on screen.”

The Machine Stops is available to view for free at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PW5yk2G5pE, although York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre are asking for donations from viewers, with all contributions being split equally between them.

What was Charles Hutchinson’s verdict in May 2016?

Gareth Aled as Machine 1 in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

The Machine Stops, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal Studio

IN between those two pillars of early 20th century English literature, A Room With A View in 1908 and Howards End in 1910, E M Forster wrote a science-fiction short story, apparently in response to the outpourings of H G Wells.

It was pretty much ignored until being included in an anthology in the 1930s, but now it should take its rightful place alongside the prescient works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster has cherished wishes to present it since 1999, and at last everything has fallen into place in a brilliant re-opening show in The Studio.

Forster and Forster makes for a perfect combination, assisted by her choice of writer, the experienced Neil Duffield; electronic musicians John Foxx and Benge in their first theatre commission, and designer Rhys Jarman, whose metallic climbing frame stage and hexagonal floor tiles could not be more fitting.

Centre stage is Vashti (Caroline Gruber), soft-boned, struggling to walk and wrapped in grey swaddling wraps, as she embraces her new, post-apocalyptic, virtual life run by The Machine, in the wake of humans being forced underground to self-contained cells where everything is brought to you: food, ambient music; lectures; overlapping messages.

John Foxx: Soundtrack hits the right note

No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication; all you need is at the touch of the screen beside you as technology rules in this dystopian regime. It is the age of the internet, conference calls and Skype, the age of isolation (and the teenage life), foretold so alarmingly accurately by Forster.

In the best decision by Juliet Forster and the writer, they have decided to represent the omnipresent Machine in human form, cogent cogs that slither and slide and twist and turn acrobatically, responding to Vashti’s every request, with an urgent physicality that has you worrying for the health and safety of Maria Gray and Gareth Aled.

Not that The Machine is merely compliant. Just as Winston Smith rebels in Orwell’s 1984, Vashti’s son Kuno (Karl Queensborough), on the other side of the underground world, craves breaking out into the old world above the artificial one, to breathe real air, see the sky, feel the sun on his face, but The Machine will do its utmost to prevent him.

Queensborough’s physical performance, as the desperate Kuno puts himself at risk, is even more remarkable than the gymnastic Machine double act, as he hurls himself around the frames.

Forster’s production has bags of tension, drama, intrigue, and plenty of humour too, especially when Gray and Aled transform into a plane attendant and passenger. Throughout, the Foxx and Benge soundtrack hits the right note, futuristic and mysterious, yet noble too when Kuno makes his move.

Nothing stops The Machine Stops: it is 90 minutes straight through, a story of science friction told superbly artistically with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.

Review: Copyright of The Press, York

The Machine Stops starts again, now online from York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre

Caroline Gruber (Vashti), Maria Gray (Machine 2) and Gareth Aled (Machine 1) in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

YORK Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre’s co-production of The Machine Stops will be available to watch online from tomorrow (23/3/2021) to April 5.

E M Forster’s 1909 short story is set in a futuristic, dystopian world where humans have retreated far underground and individuals live in isolation in “cells”, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. 

Adapted by Neil Duffield, The Machine Stops premiered in the York Theatre Royal Studio in  May and June 2016 at the outset of a three-venue run and was revived there in February 2017 before embarking on a national tour of nine venues. 

Forster’s stage premiere won the Stage Production of the Year in the 2016 Hutch Awards. “In the year when Phillip Breen directed the York Minster Mystery Plays on the grandest scale and York Theatre Royal re-opened with Bryony Lavery’s new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, it wasn’t the expected big hitters that left the deepest impression,” Hutchinson said in The Press, York.

“Instead, an obscure EM Forster sci-fi work, The Machine Stops, became a play for our times in the hands of the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre in the Theatre Royal Studio.

Karl Queensborough as Kuno in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

“Amid the stench of Brexit and Trump intolerance, here was a cautionary story of science friction and human heart told superbly artistically by a cast of four, writer Neil Duffield and electronic composers John Foxx and Benge with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.”

Move forward to 2021, to the reflective words of director Juliet Forster, York Theatre Royal’s creative director, who says: “Over this last year, I have thought about this piece many times as the world around us seemed to grow more and more like the incredible world that E M Forster imagined.

“And it’s even more striking today than it was at the time: things like human contact and human touch becoming something that’s almost taboo, things that didn’t seem relevant back in 2016 but are really, really striking and even more relevant now.”

Esther Richardson, Pilot Theatre’s artistic director, says: “When we produced The Machine Stops in 2016, it already seemed an eerily prescient piece of work. A story-world in which humans have become isolated from one another and living underground, communicating only through screens, offered an engaging space for reflection on perhaps the pitfalls of how our relationship with technology had been evolving.

“To be able to explore this in a live theatre space with an audience gathered together in person and with their technology switched off made it all the more dynamic a tale.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson. Picture: Robert Day

“It’s fantastic that, having spent the last year in different forms of isolation and on screens, we have the opportunity to share this great production, which will now sing with new meaning, meeting a new audience in a new context.”

The Machine Stops features a soundtrack composed by John Foxx, electronic music pioneer and founder of Ultravox, and analogue synth specialist Benge. The production was directed by Forster and designed by Rhys Jarman, with lighting design by Tom Smith and movement direction by Philippa Vafadari.

It stars Caroline Gruber as Vashti, Karl Queensborough as Kuno, Maria Gray as Machine/Attendant and Gareth Aled as Machine/Passenger.

The filmed recording was edited by Ben Pugh and will be released online with kind permission granted by the E M Forster estate.  

Analysing the reasons why The Machine Stops transferred so convincingly to the stage, Juliet suggested in 2017: “When you use human beings to the height of their potential, theatre is at its most interesting; when you realise the incredible ability of human body; but at the same time, you can’t shoehorn that into a play. Here, though, to represent the Machine through movement, it absolutely suited it.

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“It also helped that we had the finest soundtrack for a play in living memory, composed by John Foxx and Benge.”

That soundtrack went on to form much of the music on the John Foxx And The Maths album, The Machine, released in 2017 on the Metamatic Records label with artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the designer for David Bowie’s last two studio albums, 2013’s The Next Day and 2016’s Blackstar.

The Machine Stops will be available to view for free at pilot-theatre.com/webcast, kick-started by the online premiere at 7pm tomorrow. York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre welcome donations from viewers, with all contributions being split equally.

What was Charles Hutchinson’s verdict in May 2016?

The Machine Stops, York Theatre Royal/Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal Studio

Caroline Gruber as Vashti in The Machine Stops. Picture: Ben Bentley

IN between those two pillars of early 20th century English literature, A Room With A View in 1908 and Howards End in 1910, E M Forster wrote a science-fiction short story, apparently in response to the outpourings of H G Wells.

It was pretty much ignored until being included in an anthology in the 1930s, but now it should take its rightful place alongside the prescient works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

York Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster has cherished wishes to present it since 1999, and at last everything has fallen into place in a brilliant re-opening show in The Studio.

Forster and Forster makes for a perfect combination, assisted by her choice of writer, the experienced Neil Duffield; electronic musicians John Foxx and Benge in their first theatre commission, and designer Rhys Jarman, whose metallic climbing frame stage and hexagonal floor tiles could not be more fitting.

Centre stage is Vashti (Caroline Gruber), soft-boned, struggling to walk and wrapped in grey swaddling wraps, as she embraces her new, post-apocalyptic, virtual life run by The Machine, in the wake of humans being forced underground to self-contained cells where everything is brought to you: food, ambient music; lectures; overlapping messages.

Gareth Aled as Machine 1 in The Machine Stops

No windows; no natural day and night; no physical communication; all you need is at the touch of the screen beside you as technology rules in this dystopian regime. It is the age of the internet, conference calls and Skype, the age of isolation (and the teenage life), foretold so alarmingly accurately by Forster.

In the best decision by Juliet Forster and the writer, they have decided to represent the omnipresent Machine in human form, cogent cogs that slither and slide and twist and turn acrobatically, responding to Vashti’s every request, with an urgent physicality that has you worrying for the health and safety of Maria Gray and Gareth Aled.

Not that The Machine is merely compliant. Just as Winston Smith rebels in Orwell’s 1984, Vashti’s son Kuno (Karl Queensborough), on the other side of the underground world, craves breaking out into the old world above the artificial one, to breathe real air, see the sky, feel the sun on his face, but The Machine will do its utmost to prevent him.

Queensborough’s physical performance, as the desperate Kuno puts himself at risk, is even more remarkable than the gymnastic Machine double act, as he hurls himself around the frames.

Forster’s production has bags of tension, drama, intrigue, and plenty of humour too, especially when Gray and Aled transform into a plane attendant and passenger. Throughout, the Foxx and Benge soundtrack hits the right note, futuristic and mysterious, yet noble too when Kuno makes his move.

Nothing stops The Machine Stops: it is 90 minutes straight through, a story of science friction told superbly artistically with humanity’s worst and best attributes thrust against each other.

Review copyright of The Press, York

Review: Focus on female new writing in Northern Girls for Signal Fires Festival

The tree-lit setting for Northern Girls in the YMCA Theatre Car Park in Scarborough. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

Review: Signal Fires Festival, Northern Girls, Pilot Theatre and Arcade, YMCA Theatre Car Park, St Thomas Street, Scarborough, October 27 and 28

ALAS, we are confined to keeping only the home fires burning as Lockdown 2: The Sequel beds in from Thursday, putting live theatre back in its box for at least a month.

Yet in this desperate year, nights such as the Northern Girls showcase for female voices have risen from the ashes of 2020 to make the Signal Fires Festival a heart-warming herald of how theatre can diversify to survive the stultifying Covid strictures that have left the industry under threat.

Over the years, CharlesHutchPress has reviewed productions staged in York in an echoey multi-storey car park and at a pop-up Elizabethan theatre built on a car park. Now, the Tarmac surface of the Scarborough YMCA Theatre car park can be added to that list, on a Tuesday night of numbing exposure to the autumn elements that made the glowing presence of four fire pits so welcome to complement scarves and the now de rigueur masks.

Ben Cowens’ silvery lighting of a lonely tree added magic to the setting and provided a point of focus for the performers brought together by pioneering York company Pilot Theatre and Arcade, the new Scarborough community producers

Asma Elbadawi performing Girl Next Door for the Signal Fires Festival. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

The time-honoured tradition of telling stories at the fireside lies at the heart of Signal Fires, albeit that everyone was keeping their social distance, sitting in pods of two, rather than huddling around the heat, all wearing a headset for clarity of sound, as is the norm at outdoor performances this year.

Each commissioned vignette was a solo piece – a concentrated artform but practical for Covid times – setting free eight stories of girls and women who live along the North East coastline, as Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson did when growing up in Redcar until the age of 11. Linking them altogether was the theme of what mattered most to writers and performers alike in 2020.

Here was a chance to see a quickfire new work by fast-rising High Kilburn playwright Charley Miles, setting the bar high with the opening Erosion, performed by professional debutante Holly Surtees-Smith, who returned for Rant, by Amy-May Pell, one of four new writing talents nurtured for Northern Girls by York theatre-maker, playwright and tutor Hannah Davies.

Richardson and Arcade’s Rach Drew spread the net wide along the coastline to fish out stories from Zoe Cooper, from Newcastle (Kat/Cassie, performed by Laura Elsworthy) and Maureen Lennon, from Hull, whose rousing The Scarborough Porpoise marked Northern Girls’ second professional stage debut by the bravura Laura Boughen.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson leading a rehearsal for Northern Girls. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photography

This frank, fearless, funny and fiery feminist tale was chosen for the finale, such was its potency and desire for freedom, riding the waves amid the porpoises.

British-Sudanese spoken-word artist (and basketball player) Asma Elbadawi performed her own work, The Girl Next Door, reflecting on growing up as a hijab-wearing girl in Bradford.

Lighting the torch for breaking barriers and finding liberation, Northern Girls also introduced new works by Shannon Barker, from Scarborough (First Date), and York College A-level student Ariel Hebditch (Yin And Yang), both performed by Siu-See Hung.

Claire Edwards, writer of the past five Scarborough YMCA Theatre pantomimes, here changed tack to make waves with Waves in a second monologue for the outstanding Laura Elsworthy.

Good news too, Signal Fires will not merely turn to ash. Suitably fired up by Northern Girls, Esther Richardson is keen to roll out this pioneering writing project in other communities too.

Holly Surtees-Smith making her professional debut in Northern Girls amid the smoke and fire of the Signal Fires Festival. Picture: Matthew Cooper, Msc1photograph

Pilot Theatre welcomes £1.57bn arts aid package but calls for fair share all round

On yer bike: Nigar Yeva, left, Aimee Powell, Olisa Odele, Kate Donnachie and Corey Campbell in Pilot Theatre’s Covid-curtailed 2020 production, Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre is calling for an “equitable approach to the distribution” of the Government’s £1.57 billion arts aid package.

This plea comes in the wake of Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden hinting at priority being given to protecting “the crown jewels”, while seeking to support small-scale venues too.

All this at a time when Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under the spotlight after his General Election victory pledge to “level up” the playing field for places not called London and the South East.

In a statement released today “in response to the Government’s cultural investment announcement” under the cloak of night late on Sunday, Pilot’s joint chief executives, artistic director Esther Richardson and executive producer Amanda Smith, “welcomed the news that the UK government has put together a rescue package for arts and culture”.

“Thank you to every single person and organisation who has given time and energy to the campaigns for our industry through the most challenging period we can remember,” they said. 

Esther Richardson: Co-director of Crongton Knights and artistic director of Pilot Theatre. Picture: Robert Day

“The details of the rescue package are not yet clear, but what is clear is that there must be an equitable approach to the distribution of this funding. The committees that now take the decisions over how emergency support is shared must be representative of all our communities.”

Pilot, the pioneering resident company at York Theatre Royal,  is noted for its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, all-inclusive ethos, prompting Esther and Amanda to say: “Black, Asian, minority ethnic, disabled and LGBTQI+ leaders must be at this table as well as a healthy number of those who do not work in London, and those who can speak for the freelance workforce. 

“Children and young people and their interests must also be central, as must organisations and individuals who specialise in working with these groups.”

The chief execs urge: “This money will offer some in the sector a short-term lifeline but all who receive it should seize upon the longer-term opportunity to create work throughout the UK that is bold, imaginative and truly accessible and inclusive.

“This is a welcome gesture but only the beginning of the longer project to ensure the survival and growth of the arts in all our communities.”

Pilot Theatre were on tour with their premiere of Emteaz Hussain’s adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s young adult novel Crongton Knights when the Covid-19 shutdown intervened.

Madcap adventure: Nigar Yeva, left, Zak Douglas Aimee Powell, Olisa Odele and Khai Shaw in Pilot Theatre’s Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

Performed at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29, Crongton Knights took its audience on a night of madcap adventure as McKay and his friends, The Magnificent Six, encountered the dangers and ultimate triumphs of a mission gone awry.

In this story of how lessons learned the hard way can bring you closer together, the pulse of the city was brought to life on stage with a Conrad Murray soundscape of beatboxing and vocals laid down by the cast of Kate Donnachie; Zak Douglas; Simi Egbejumi-David; Nigar Yeva; Olisa Odele; Aimee Powell; Khai Shaw and Marcel White.

Wheatle, a writer born in London to Jamaican parents, said he was “very proud” of Pilot Theatre adapting his novel for the stage: “It’s a modern quest story where, on their journey, the young diverse lead characters have to confront debt, poverty, blackmail, loss, fear, the trauma of a flight from a foreign land and the omnipresent threat of gangland violence.”

During lockdown, Pilot launched the webcast premiere of their co-production with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Derby Theatre and York Theatre Royal online for free on April 22, the night when Richardson and Corey Campbell’s show  would have been opening its London run at Theatre Peckham.

Last year, Pilot and the York, Derby and Coventry theatres, together with Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, launched a partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences. During the four-year cycle from 2019 to 2022, the consortium will commission and co-produce four original mid-scale productions. 

The Magnificent Six ride on as Pilot Theatre stream teen turf drama Crongton Knights

Nigar Yeva, left, Zak Douglas Aimee Powell, Olisa Odele and Khai Shaw in Pilot Theatre’s Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre will webcast the online premiere of their 2020 co-production of Crongton Knights for free from April 22.

The webcast stream will start at 6.45pm that night when Esther Richardson and Corey Campbell’s Covid-19-curtailed production would have been opening its London run at Theatre Peckham.

Emteaz Hussain’s adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s award-wining young adult novel will be available to stream online at  pilot-theatre.com/webcast until Saturday, May 9, the day that the tour’s final curtain would have fallen at Theatre Peckham. 

To coincide with the webcast, Pilot, resident company at York Theatre Royal, will put online a series of talks and question-and-answer sessions with the creative team behind Crongton Knights.

The first Pilot Connects event will be a Q&A with the show’s composer and musical director, Conrad Murray, hosted by Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson on April 23 (time to be confirmed).        

Kate Donnachie, left, Nigar Yeva, Douglas Aimee, Olisa Odele and Khai Shaw in Crongton Knights. Picture: Robert Day

Performed at York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29, Crongton Knights takes its audience on a night of madcap adventure as McKay and his friends, The Magnificent Six, encounter the dangers and ultimate triumphs of a mission gone awry.

In this story of how lessons learned the hard way can bring you closer together, the pulse of the city is brought to life on stage with a Conrad Murray soundscape of beatboxing and vocals laid down by the cast of Kate Donnachie; Zak Douglas; Simi Egbejumi-David; Nigar Yeva; Olisa Odele; Aimee Powell; Khai Shaw and Marcel White.

Wheatle, a writer born in London to Jamaican parents, said he was “very proud” of Pilot Theatre adapting his novel for the stage: “It’s a modern quest story where, on their journey, the young diverse lead characters have to confront debt, poverty, blackmail, loss, fear, the trauma of a flight from a foreign land and the omnipresent threat of gangland violence.

“The dialogue I created for this award-winning novel deserves a platform and I, for one, can’t wait to see the characters that have lived in my head for a number of years leap out of my mind and on to a stage near you.” And now on a webcast stream.

Co-director Esther Richardson said of the teen quest story: “For us, this play is a lens through which to explore the complexity of young people’s lives, open a platform for those concerns and show what they have to try to navigate fairly invisibly to other members of society. It’s the context in which they live that creates the problem, and these kids go under the radar.

Esther Richardson: Co-director of Crongton Knights and artistic director of Pilot Theatre. Picture: Robert Day

“Alex is writing about how the world is stacked against teenagers; how young people have been thrown to the dogs; how they to negotiate this No Man’s Land they live in, when their places have been closed down; their spaces to express themselves.

“They have been victims of austerity – as have disabled people – so it’s no surprise that there’s been a rise in knife crime, with kids on the streets and no youth workers to go to, to talk about their feelings.”

Crongton Knights is a co-production between Pilot Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Derby Theatre and York Theatre Royal, who last year formed – together with the Mercury Theatre, Colchester – a partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences.

During the four-year cycle, 2019 to 2022, the consortium will commission and co-produce four original mid-scale productions. 

Such co-productions are becoming all the more important against a backdrop of Esther being concerned by the cuts in arts funding and the potential negative impact of Brexit too. “Theatre is not seen as an opportunity to thrive in, especially in this post-Brexit landscape where it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she predicted.

“That’s why we will further shift into co-creating pieces, Pilot creating work with communities, Pilot co-creating with teens, which we do already do, but we can do it better and do it more.”

For more information on forthcoming Pilot Connects events, visit pilot-theatre.com/performance/current/pilot-connects/.

On yer bike: A tense stand-off in Crongton Knights

REVIEW: Crongton Knights, Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, February 25 to 29

EVER since Lord Of The Flies, York Theatre Royal resident company Pilot Theatre have made theatre that speaks directly to young audiences.

Now, Pilot are in the second year of a four-year creative partnership with Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Derby Theatre and the Theatre Royal, their reach spreading ever wider.

Last year’s gripping adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s radical Noughts & Crosses is followed up by another topical story, Emteaz Hussain’s stage account of Crongton Knights, a young adult novel by Brixton Bard Alex Wheatle, a London writer of Jamaican parentage.

Co-directed by Corey Campbell, artistic director of Strictly Arts Theatre Company, and Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, it is a play with music, not a musical, but has the punch of West Side Story, the exhilarating beatbox and vocal score by Conrad Murray setting the story’s pulsating rhythm.

The Crongton Knights of the title are the self-styled Magnificent Six, caught up at a young age in the gangland turf wars of the Crongton Estate, divided into “North Crong” and “South Crong”, their homestead.

Into the dangerous Notre Dame estate they venture on a teen quest, a mission to rescue the mobile phone of Venetia (Aimee Powell, the show’s best singer), in the possession of her ex-boyfriend with incriminating photographs she needs to erase.

Leading them is big-hearted McKay (Olisa Odele); alongside are Jonah (Khai Shaw), Bit (Zak Douglas), Saira (Nigar Yeva) and, along for the ride, and desperate to be their lookout, Bushkid (Kate Donnachie), on her bike.

What follows is a story of “lessons learned the hard way” at the hands of those more experienced, more streetwise, more ruthless, more desperate, as represented by Simi Egbejumi-David’s ensemble roles.

In Wheatle’s words, the Magnificent Six must “confront debt, poverty, blackmail, loss, fear, the trauma of a flight from a foreign land and the omnipresent threat of gangland violence”, but the tone is not suffocatingly grim. Even in a world stacked against teens, there is hope; there is positivity; above all there is the bond of friendship.

Pilot’s press release talked of a madcap adventure, and Simon Kenny’s graffiti-painted, rainbow-coloured, scaffolded set design plays to that spirit, especially when garage lock-up doors open up to show the Magnificent Six running in slow motion. Imagine a cartoon crossed with the black comedy drama of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

Not all the dialogue is as clear as it could be, and nor is the story’s passage, but the highly energised performances, especially by Odele and Powell, are terrific, and special praise goes to Dale Mathurin for stepping into the role of Nesta with only two hot-housed days of rehearsals.

Richard G Jones’s lighting and Adam P McCready’s sound design are important too, both complementing the urban wasteland of troubled teens trying to find their place when so much is barren.

Not the end for Crongton Knights: The tour had to be curtailed but now the Pilot Theatre co-production can be streamed online from April 22 to May 9

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Pilot Theatre to revive Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal and on autumn tour

Heather Agyepong as Sephy in Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal last April . Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre will revive their award-winning 2019 production of Noughts & Crosses for an autumn tour.

This announcement comes amid the blaze of publicity for BBC One’s six-part adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel, filmed in South Africa, that began earlier this week.

Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage version of a modern-day Romeo & Juliet tale of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia will be directed once more by Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson, whose co-production of Crongton Knights played York Theatre Royal from February 25 to 29 on Pilot’s latest tour.

“We’re delighted that this show, which was nominated for best show for children and young people at UK Theatre Awards, is returning later this year,” says Esther. “It’s wonderful that even more young people can experience this production and that Pilot will be able to tour to areas of England that we haven’t visited, thanks to the support of Arts Council England.”

Class act: more than school friends Sephy (Heather Agyepong) and Callum (Billy Harris) in Noughts And Crosses last year.

Noughts & Crosses will open at the York theatre in a September 11 to 19 run before embarking on a national tour until late-November.   

Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Sephy and Callum, Blackman’s love story set in a volatile, racially segregated society, where black (the Crosses) rules over white (the Noughts), as she explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world. 

Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation for teenagers is based on Blackman’s first book in the Noughts & Crosses series for young adults, winner of the Red House Children’s Book Award and the Fantastic Fiction Award, among other accolades. 

Noughts & Crosses was produced by Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, and the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, as the first show in a new partnership to develop theatre for younger audiences. This is the consortium behind the aforementioned tour of  Emteaz Hussain’s adaptation of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

Last year, Noughts & Crosses won the Excellence in Touring award at the UK Theatre Awards, when also nominated for Best Show for Children and Young People. 

As with Crongton Knights, schools workshops and outreach projects, along with free digital learning resources, will be available alongside the autumn production of Noughts & Crosses

Casting will be announced in the coming months. Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568, at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk or in person from the Theatre Royal box office.

Here is a precis of Charles Hutchinson’s review of Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses at York Theatre Royal, printed in The Press, York, in April 2019.

“ESTHER Richardson proposed Noughts & Crosses when pitching for Pilot’s artistic directorship after Marcus Romer headed south, and her passion for Malorie Blackman’s twist on a Romeo & Juliet story is writ large in her telling of Sabrina Mahfouz’s electrifying adaptation.

Heather Agyepong’s Sephy in Noughts & Crosses last year

“In Blackman’s Britain, Noughts are the white underlings; no orange juice; milk only on Fridays; no mobile phones; second-rate secondary education. Crosses are the black ruling class; apartheid divisions turned on their head.

“Never the twain shall meet on equal terms, except that Nought Callum (Billy Harris), 15, and Cross Sephy (Heather Agyepong), 14, have been friends throughout childhood, meeting secretly on her family’s private beach.

Sephy’s father, Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack), is the Home Secretary; Callum’s mum, Meggie (Lisa Howard), is the Hadley family’s housekeeper. When Callum is one of three Nought teens granted a place at Sephy’s Crosses-only school, how will it affect their relationship?

“Blackman depicts a fractious, tinderbox world: Sephy’s mum Jasmine (Doreene Blackstock) is an alcoholic, neglected by her preoccupied husband; Callum’s dad Ryan (Daniel Copeland) and brother Jude (Jack Condon) are Liberation Militia freedom fighters. Callum’s sister, so damaged in an assault, has curled up in a ball ever since.

Pilot Theatre cast members in a scene in Noughts & Crosses

“As with Pilot’s first hit, Lord Of The Flies, our ability to destroy rather than create bonds, to repeatedly take the wrong turn, lies at the heart of Blackman’s damning, bleak vision that haunts us still more in intolerant Brexit Britain.

“Sephy and Callum express a wish for a better world, one where we rub along with each other, but this is a rotten Britain of death sentences, an intransigent Home Secretary, thwarted love across the divide.

“Given the bold imagination of Blackman’s novel for young adults with its heroine figure of a bright black teenage girl, you might wish she had come up with a similarly bold answer to so many ultimately familiar woes.

“Alas not, but this is nevertheless a superb production with good performances all round, plenty of punch in the direction, and high-quality set, lighting, sound, music and video design.”