Pilot Theatre in Noughts & Crosses, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
PILOT Theatre likes to pioneer new work…and then the next new work. Rarely does the York company retrace its steps. Only Marcus Romer’s revisit of his definitive take on Lord Of The Flies springs to mind.
Now, artistic director Esther Richardson jumps at the chance to re-examine Pilot’s award-winning Noughts & Crosses in the light of George Floyd’s murder, the rise of Black Lives Matter and in turn incidents of racial hatred since the premiere co-production with York Theatre Royal, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre, Derby Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre in 2019.
Since then too, the BBC has made two series of its South African-set, militaristic adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s ground-breaking novel for young adults, losing momentum and impact on its return.
Your reviewer will not be alone in much preferring Sabrina Mahfouz’s stage adaptation, one that has a circular structure, puts the teens to the fore as narrators and openly invites comparisons with Shakespeare’s star-cross’d young lovers in Romeo & Juliet.
From that ancient grudge, Blackman and in turn Mahfouz break to new mutiny in Noughts & Crosses in contemporary Britain, but one where 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.
In this metropolitan tinderbox – to all intents and purposes London – their worlds are segregated, capital punishment prevails, but love will out for the Romeo and Juliet of the piece, Nought Callum (James Arden), 15, and Cross Sephy (Effie Ansah), 14.
His mother, Meggie (Emma Keele), is the housekeeper to Sephy’s high-society parents, the government’s hard-line Home Secretary, Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack, reprising his role from 2019) and weary wife Jasmine.
Thrown together by circumstance, they have been friends throughout childhood, meeting secretly on her family’s private beach. However, when Callum is picked to be among the first three Nought teens to attend Sephy’s Crosses-only school, their relationship will come under duress in new surroundings.
Unhappiness is all around. Sephy’s mum Jasmine (Amie Buhari) seeks solace in the bottle, rejected by her play-away, always busy husband. Her sister Minerva (Steph Asamoah) is bored, bored, bored.
Callum’s dad Ryan (Daniel Copeland, even better in this heart-breaking role than he was in 2019) bonds with older brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) by taking up the freedom-fighting cause of the Liberation Militia. Callum’s sister, battered in an assault, sinks inside her hoodie, never going out.
In a Britain where The Queen’s passing has brought a sense of unity, however briefly, the greater reality remains one of division, one where the jam sandwich keeps landing jam side down; if a wrong decision can be made, it will be.
Blackman and Mahfouz present a damning report on a damned, destructive world, one that will crush Callum and Sephy’s love, just as it squeezed the life out of Romeo and his Juliet.
A new life signifies new hope, says Sephy, and of course she and Callum hoped for a better place to be, but where could they go? “Terrorist” bombs go off; bullying is rife; love cannot soar above hate.
Noughts & Crosses does serve up a new heroine figure in Sephy’s bright, bold black teenage girl, played so vividly in her first lead role by Ansah. But while we have an Ansah, we do not have a new answer to what would improve relations, just the same questions asked in a different way.
That in no way diminishes the impact of Esther Richardson’s electrifying shock of a production; instead it heightens the sense of frustration. Arden’s first lead announces a talent to watch; Buhari and McCloskey excel too.
Simon Kenny’s set and costume designs, with his clever use of tables, lit-up boxes and walls that open up like cupboards, are complemented by Corey Campbell’s movement direction and Ben Cowens’ outstanding lighting design.
Xana and Arun Ghosh’s music and soundscapes and Ian William Galloway’s video designs have a suitably unnerving impact, adding to the feeling of a Big Brother bully at work.
Pilot Theatre’s tour of Noughts & Crosses will run from September 27 to November 26 2022, then January 18 to April 1 2023. In Yorkshire: Laurence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, November 1 to 5; box office, 01484 430528 or thelbt.org.