REVIEW: Charles Hutchinson’s verdict on Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses ****

Thwarted love: James Arden’s Callum and Effie Ansah’s Sephy in Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

Pilot Theatre in Noughts & Crosses, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

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.

Like father, like son: Daniel Copeland’s Ryan and Nathaniel McCloskey’s Jude, Liberation Militia freedom fighters united. Picture: Robert Day

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. 

Home but often away: Home Secretary Kamal Hadley (Chris Jack) with his daughter Minerva (Steph Asamoah) and wife Jasmine (Amie Buhari). Picture: Robert Day

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.

Family at war: Callum (James Arden), brother Jude (Nathaniel McCloskey) and mother Meggie (Emma Keele) listening to father Ryan (Daniel Copeland), making his dissident point. Picture: Robert Day

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.

Noughts & Crosses “serves up a a new heroine figure in Sephy’s bright, bold black teenage girl”, played by Effie Ansah. Picture: Robert Day

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 design for Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses. Picture: Robert Day

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

Technical prowess: Pilot Theatre’s Noughts & Crosses combines emotional power with design brio. Picture: Robert Day

Pilot Theatre confirm casting for revival of volatile love story Noughts & Crosses

The Noughts & Crosses cast for Pilot Theatre’s 2022-2023 tour

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s casting is complete for the revival of their award-winning production of Noughts & Crosses.

First staged in 2019, Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel of first love in a dangerous fictional dystopia will be on tour from autumn to spring 2023 under the direction once more of artistic director Esther Richardson.

Noughts & Crosses will open on home turf at York Theatre Royal from September 16 to 24, having first played there in April 2019.

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. 

In 2019, the premiere formed the inaugural co-production between Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester, who had formed a new partnership in 2018 to develop, produce and present theatre for younger audiences. 

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.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

The Noughts & Crosses cast will be fronted by Effie Ansah (The Maladies, Almeida Theatre) and James Arden in their first leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

Emma Keele (East Is East, Birmingham Rep and National Theatre and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, UK tour) will play Meggie; Nathanial McClosky (Macbeth, Box Clever Theatre), Jude; Amie Buhari (Flowers, Channel 4), Jasmine.

Steph Asamoah (Billy Eliot, Curve Theatre) will be Minerva; Chris Jack (Brighton Rock, Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal and Our Town, Royal Exchange Manchester), Kamal; Daniel Copeland (Invincible, Orange Tree Theatre and The Jungle Book, Leeds Playhouse), Ryan, and newcomer Tom Coleman, Nought Man, Andrew Dorn and understudy to Callum and Jude. 

Daniel Norford (Small Island and The Welkin, National Theatre and The Lion King, UK tour) will join the cast next spring in the role of Kamal. All actors will play ensemble roles too.

After the York Theatre Royal home run, Noughts & Crosses will tour: Richmond Theatre, London (September 27 to October 1; Exeter Northcott (October 4 to 8); Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (October 11 to 15); Northern Stage, Newcastle (October 18 to 22); Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield (November 1 to 5); New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (November 8 to 12); The Alexandra, Birmingham (November 9 to 15) and Liverpool Playhouse (November 22 to 26).

The tour will resume in 2023 at: The Lowry, Salford (January 17 to 21); Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (January 24 to 28); Rose Theatre, Kingston (January 31 to February 11); Theatre Royal, Brighton (February 21 to 25); Oldham Coliseum (March 14 to 18); Poole Lighthouse (March 21 to 25) and Curve Theatre, Leicester (March 28 to April 1).

Esther is joined in the production team by designer Simon Kenny; 2022 lighting designer Ben Cowens; original lighting designer Joshua Drualus Pharo and composer Arun Ghosh.

Tickets for the York run are on sale on 01904 623568 or at

Class act: Heather Agyepong as Sephy and Billy Harris as Callum in Pilot Theatre’s 2019 premiere of Noughts And Crosses at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day