Review: Noughts & Crosses

Date: 24/11/2022

Romeo & Juliet meets 1984 via Hollyoaks? Such a description may be glib, reductive even, but that’s very much the impression given by Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s ‘what if?’ novel series, Noughts And Crosses.

In the finest tradition of speculative fiction, the play presents us with a dystopia that makes us question our present-day real life. What if the power dynamic was in favour of the black population, the titular Crosses, and the whites (Noughts) were a repressed underclass denied everyday right and privileges?

If that set up sounds a little like a sixth-form writing exercise, well it literally is. The largely young cast initially play up the teen-drama dynamics too with a lot of running! – laughing! – shouting! but the play gradually becomes murkier, heavier and the cast reflect the moodier outlook.

Sephy and Callum – star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks – find that government, society and even their own families will not allow their race- and class-defying relationship. Callum, one of the first Noughts to attend a Cross school, is welcomes with bullying and violence. Sephy finds scorn and disgust from parents, sibling and friends alike for welcoming him.

Noughts & Crosses

Meanwhile the structural biases are played out in media reports – back projected on the minimalist but striking set – that reflect the government lines. How far-fetched you find this may depend on your point-of-view.

Noughts respond with civil disobedience and political violence (with Callum’s family sucked in); it’s all the excuse the ruling, not-really-secretely racist Crosses need to crack down even further. It’s a tinder box – and the two families at the heart of Noughts And Crosses light the fuse.

Noughts & Crosses has a lot to pack in – and it shows. Despite a running time well over two hours the action, the emotion and the narrative twists come at breakneck speed. Nuance and subplots get a little lost in the mix and the texture of the novel gets lost.

Effie Ansah portray’s Seffy’s loss of innocence expertly, while Billy Harris (Tim Booth with the mannerisms of Martin Freeman) has to do a heck of a lot to take Callum from ingenue to freedom fighter. He does it well, but with so much to set up, explore and digest the cast feel like they’ve been given an impossible task.

Noughts & Crosses
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 26 November