Thursday 30 March 2023

Noughts and Crosses


Curve, Leicester
Wednesday 29th March, 2023

‘With new life there’s new hope, right?’


Malorie Blackman was a seminal figure in my adolescence and a huge influence on my love of literature. I first read her Noughts and Crosses series aged 13. To my maturing mind the books were revelatory; they dealt with adult themes such as race, politics, sex and class, with striking confidence, a gripping plot and without ever talking down to the reader. These were grown-up novels and I ate them up with relish. In the 20 years since publication Blackman’s story has gone from strength to strength, becoming a set text for schools, spawning a hit BBC tv series, and now inspiring it’s second stage adaptation. Sabrina Mahfouz’s version highlights the prescience and urgency of Blackman’s story, conveying both the universality of the themes while emphasising their pertinence in contemporary society.

Sephy and Callum have known each other all their lives, their bond is seemingly unshakeable, yet the society they live in places them worlds apart in terms of wealth, liberty, education and class. Sephy Hadley is a Cross, the daughter of a top politician, living in an expensive house with its own private beach, and all the material riches she could ever want. Callum McGregor is a Nought, the son of the Hadleys’ maid, a lower-class citizen within a racially segregated state built on oppression and capital punishment. A new government policy permitting the integration of Noughts into Cross schools, along with the increasing violence and unrest brought about by the extremist paramilitary group, the Liberation Militia, forces Sephy and Callum to confront their differences and question their place in social history. Political and personal clashes ultimately end in tragedy in Blackman’s modern parable, which still holds the power to shock.

Mahfouz stays true to the source material in her adaptation, while adding her own linguistic flourishes that lift the piece into the realm of drama. I particularly enjoyed Mahfouz’s sections of verse which portray the inner thoughts of our protagonists. Internal rhymes and a striking use of mirroring/repetition are earthily poetic while demonstrating both the confluence of the characters and the incongruous, duplicitous systems which dictate their lives.

Simon Kenny’s deceptively simple design makes great use of blocky, urban set pieces which occasionally melt into gauzy windows or burst into pops of violence – whether rhetorical or physical – via Ian William Galloway’s vast video projections that flood the stage. We are in a familiar world of rolling news channels, shopping malls and mobile phones (although only Crosses are permitted to own them), which hammers home the similarities with the increased racial tensions in our own society over recent years.

If Esther Richardson’s production is a little rough around the edges at times this does not detract from the narrative punch. In fact, the lack of gloss and intimacy of the piece draws the audience into this world, relying not on high tech theatrical wizardry, but old-fashioned story-telling charm. Yes, Blackman and Mahfouz’s social commentary is painted in broad strokes, but this plays well with the mainly teenaged audience, who were rapt and enthusiastic throughout. Long may Noughts and Crosses inspire and fire up generations to come.

 Noughts and Crosses plays at Curve, Leicester until 1st April 2023.

The cast of Noughts and Crosses
Credit: Robert Day

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