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Noughts and Crosses at Theatre Royal Brighton

Malorie Blackman has written over sixty books for young people as well as scripts for television and one play, but she has said that if she were only remembered for Noughts and Crosses she would not be disappointed. The nine books in the series describe life in a dystopian twenty-second-century country, exploring love, race and violence. Sabrina Mahfouz’s play is based on the first book which appeared in 2007, and concerns the Crosses, a dark-skinned people who are the dominant race and the Noughts, lighter-skinned people, who are very much the underdogs.

James Arden as Callum and Effie Ansah as Sephy.
James Arden as Callum and Effie Ansah as Sephy.

We follow the lives and forbidden love of Sephy, a Cross, and Callum, a Nought, plus their respective dysfunctional families.

Mahfouz’s adaptation is, quite simply, superb, being not only a powerful piece of theatre, at times chilling, but also a fast-paced drama, very true to the original novel. The way she dovetails the short scenes so that the play flows is quite magnificent and often breath-taking – the audience is quickly caught up in the ebb and flow of the two families, and although the first act lasts 85 minutes (the second being 45) it seems half that length. In fact, amongst the many young people in the audience at Brighton, you could have heard a proverbial pin drop: rarely have I heard an audience listen with such concentration.

BUT, this is definitely NOT just a play for young people: no allowance is made for young or old in the writing or in Esther Richardson’s direction which is not only imaginative in the use of her acting ensemble, but also ensures that the plot is always clear and interweaves as it should.

This is very much an ensemble piece of theatre, but Sephy (Effie Ansah) and Callum (James Arden) are both rarely off-stage. Each is very natural in role, Ansah especially having that rare gift of being able to use her hands and facial expression subtly yet effectively and Arden being very believable in his innocence of what is going on around him, until the second half when he ‘grows up’. They are very watchable and have that rare quality: charisma.

Jude, Callum’s elder brother is played by Nathaniel McCloskey, neatly avoiding stereotyping his role, and Callum’s father Ryan is expertly handled by Daniel Copeland, growing in stature as the play progresses.

Kamal, Sephy’s father, and the “villain” of the piece, if that is not being too simplistic, is acted by Daniel Norford, seemingly every inch the politician, and her alcoholic mother Jasmine by Amie Buhari.

Design is by Simon Kenny who has provided a composite set that moves when needed as well as simple furniture that is slid across the stage by the company to quickly create a new setting. Ben Cowens’ (apostrophe in the correct place, Neil) lighting is predominantly red, Kenny provides the reasoning behind this in the excellent programme notes.

For those who do not know the original book, I have tried to give away as little of the plot as possible, so that when you see this play (it is a “must-see”) you feel the power of the writing and acting as much as those in the Theatre Royal, which, as I keep reminding people, is only one hour from London by train! There is a Question and Answer session after the performance on the day I am writing this, as well as a BSL performance later in the week.

This is a wonderful play with some even more wonderful acting and will completely carry you away, as all theatre should; it will shock you and give much food for thought. Pilot Theatre, the company touring this play, specialise in developing work for young audiences and deserve many plaudits for this particular production.

After Brighton the play is touring to Bath, Oxford, Poole, and Leicester, as well as Oldham Coliseum where it will be almost the last production before that theatre closes permanently owing to the withdrawal of its Arts Council funding.

It does not matter where you see it, but please do!!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Pilot Theatre presents this gripping Romeo and Juliet story. Written by award-winning writer Malorie Blackman and adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz, Noughts and Crosses is a captivating drama of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world.

Sephy and Callum sit together on a beach. They are in love. It is forbidden.

Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses there are racial and social divides. A segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge.

As violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger.

Until Sat 25 Feb 2023

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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