Tuesday, May 28

Noughts & Crosses – Richmond Theatre

‘Noughts & Crosses’, adapted for the stage by Sabrina Mahfouz for Pilot Theatre, is based on a series of young adult novels written by critically acclaimed British Author, Malorie Blackman. The series includes six novels and three novellas, all of which take place in an alternative 21st-century Britain, where the Crosses operate complete power over the Noughts, and where inequality and discrimination form the backbone of society, guiding the moral and constitutional compass.

In Mahfouz’s adaptation, Sephy (Effie Ansah) is a Cross, she is dark-skinned and part of the elite class. Sephy’s people call the shots. Callum (James Arden) is a Nought, he is light-skinned and lower-class. He and his family are struggling to survive. The pair have been friends for an eternity, and whilst segregated by their families and society in all ways possible, the bond between them is deep and growing stronger, despite existing within a divided society that is teetering on a volatile knife edge.

Blackman has been showered with accolades since introducing the world to the Noughts & Crosses novel series in 2001. On top of multiple literary awards, the original novel was ranked 88th in The Guardian’s Best Books of the 21st Century, and in 2019 BBC News included it on its list of the 100 most inspiring novels. In theory, Mahfouz had all the right ingredients for her production to be a knock-out, but as is often the case, adapting a novel for the stage is stacked with challenges, and unfortunately this script falls short on many levels and fails to do Blackmans’ work justice. Mahfouz has of course kept Blackman’s powerful and relevant themes within her work including, elitism, oppression, social injustice, and terrorism, and she has also focused, much more than Blackman did, on racism and racial discrimination. When watching the piece, whilst set in a fictional land, it is easy to interpret and contextualise the work in many different directions, Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, or even Ukraine. However, at times the naïve and immature cast of actors, directed by Esther Richardson, are completely swallowed by the challenging content, and as a result the power of the writing is lost. Some of the performers are fresh out of drama school and don’t seem to have the right experience to hold such big roles. This results in the overall feel of the work being more aligned with a high-quality college production than a ground-breaking piece of professional theatre.

The play is split very unequally into two acts. The first act a long and slow 90 minutes, and the second act, a faster paced 40 minutes. Of course, it’s very unusual to have a 90-minute first act, there are usually reserved for the high impact, big budget, all singing and dancing productions, and whilst there are sparks of brilliance within this production, overall, it’s missing the important trigger points to result set the stage alight. The interval was a welcome relief, even the younger, school-trip audience members were clearly gripped. 

By far the element that carries this current version of ‘Noughts & Crosses’, ensuring it could maintain a long and successful journey off of the GCSE reading list, is the intense and highly striking quality of the production design by Simon Kenny, supported brilliantly by Ben Cowen’s lighting design and music and sound by Arun Ghosh & Xana. This creative team are able to transport Mahfouz’s script into a dystopian world, dominated by a harsh, and oppressive red backdrop that is as overwhelming as the Berlin Wall and a true metaphor for oppression. The lighting and visuals are neon and harsh, but also at times, dark and distant reflecting the realities of the character’s struggles, and a sustained soundtrack of haunting drone-based music, which plays throughout the play, reminds the audience that the oppressive power is constant in the characters’ lives (maybe in all our lives). This is truly a masterclass in how the creative design team can elevate a production to a greater level.

Judging from the young Richmond audience, this is a production that will continue to attract coach loads of school children on organised trips to the theatre as part of curriculum, but ‘Noughts & Crosses’ may not be the right choice for the more mature and sophisticated theatre goer. That said, it is at Richmond Theatre until 1st October 2022 and then continues to tour other UK venues throughout 2022 and 2023. 

Tickets for Richmond Theatre are available here: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/noughts-and-crosses/richmond-theatre

Reviewer: Alan Stuart Malin

Reviewed: 27th September 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★