Review: Noughts and Crosses, Richmond Theatre

This thoughtful and theatrical adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses starts a new major UK tour, now playing Richmond Theatre

“Why love, if losing hurts so much?”

Pilot Theatre’s production of Noughts and Crosses had a highly successful UK tour back in 2019 (which I caught in Derby) and has now returned for another major sweep through the theatres of England until April 2023. And it is easy to see why it appeals so – Malorie Blackman’s sharply political YA novel speaks enduringly to our times and Sabrina Mafhouz’s adaptation, directed here by Esther Richardson, is engagingly theatrical.  

It’s a twist on a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale but what is most fascinating here is the society in which Blackman sets her story. This is a highly segregated world but one where the ruling class – the Crosses – are black and the subjugated, lower-class Noughts are white, an inversion which exposes much about the nature of prejudice and crucially, thoughtfully, reminds us that though this is an alternative universe, it really isn’t so many degrees of separation away from contemporary British society.    

As teenagers are wont to do, Sephy and Callum are breaking the rules by rebelling against the societal norm that says Crosses should not mix with Noughts. But as Sephy’s dad is the Home Secretary and Callum’s family are mixed up with the paramilitary Liberation Militia, there’s a lot more at stake than broken hearts as stark political unrest trickles down to severe personal impact as an action-packed plot takes no prisoners with its intensity. 

Richardson encloses the action in a highly effective set of panels designed by Simon Kenny, deep, almost blood-red and claustrophobic even as they open out to shift us from classrooms to cells to courts and more. Ben Cowens’ lighting and Arun Ghosh & Xana’s music and sound work brilliantly build up the febrile atmosphere and growing sense of unrest, Corey Campbell’s movement adding a visceral, visual component to the language of the play.    

Effie Ansah and James Arden both impress in their debut leading roles. Sephy and Callum’s relationship is interestingly textured as they negotiate their growing feelings for each other even as the political landscape shifts around them, constantly shifting the power dynamic and the palpable chemistry between the actors means we’re thoroughly invested in their fate. A far more thoughtful commentary on race than can be found most anywhere else. 

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Robert Day
Noughts and Crosses is booking at Richmond Theatre until 1st October and then tours to Exeter Northcott, 4-8 October; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, 11-15 October; Northern Stage, Newcastle, 18-22 October; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 1-5 November; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, 8-12 November; The Alexandra, Birmingham, 15–19 November; Liverpool Playhouse, 22-26 November; The Lowry, Salford, 18-21 Jan; Belgrade Theatre Coventry, 24-28 Jan; Rose Theatre Kingston, 31 Jan-11 Feb; Brighton Theatre Royal, 21 Feb-25 Feb; Bath Theatre Royal, 28 Feb-4 Mar; Oxford Playhouse, 7 Mar-11 Mar; Oldham Coliseum, 14-18 Mar; Lighthouse, Poole, 21-25 Mar; and Curve Leicester, 28 Mar-1 Apr

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