Effie and James

Effie Ansah as Sephy and James Arden as Callum. Picture: Robert Day

Noughts & Crosses

The Alexandra Theatre


If ever a play became a universal narrative, an Everyman of theatre, it is Shakespeare’s ultimate love story, Romeo and Juliet. For Montagues and Capulets you can substitute any of a litany of ancient religious or national tensions, the secular turf war of the Sharks and Jets or the simple prejudice of race, of white on black - so welcome to the dystopian world of Noughts & Crosses.

Malorie Blackman’s 2001 novel is brought to disturbing life in this adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz. We are in  an alternative reality, a world of segregation, where the colour of your skin alone dictates your status.

But instead of the well-travelled, familiar path of white supremacy it is the Crosses, the blacks who hold the whip hand with the Noughts, the whites, in the unfamiliar roles of the oppressed, with an all powerful faceless international body issuing directives – an Orwellian version of “fair Verona, where we lay our scene”.

Enter Sephy (Persephone), played by Effie Ansah. She is a Cross, daughter of a wealthy senior politician, a member of the ruling elite, Kamal Hadley, played by Chris Jack.

It was Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which first pointed out love is blind and little has changed 700 years on in this 22nd century parallel universe as Callum McGregor, played by James Arden, a Nought friend from childhood, and Sephy become the story's pair of star-cross'd lovers.

Callum is the son of Meggie, played by Emma Keele, nanny to the Hadley children, and he and Sephy became playmates – until Meggie is sacked by Kamal and the playmates can then only meet in secret, in darkness on the beach.

It is a love story fraught with difficulties. Lovers from oposite side of tracks that dare not be crossed.

Home Secretary Kamal gives token rights to the Noughts, not out of a sense of equality or justice but to get the Pangaean Economic Community off his back. The PEC being a sort of cross between the UN and EU.

One right being scholarships for the brightest Noughts to allow them into the Cross schools which means Callum ends up at Sephy’s school where tensions are high, integration being in name only with Cross pupils, parents and society against and even some of the Noughts seeing the move as patronising, merely a PR exercise.

sephy in school

Sephy risks her own safety and reputation to sit with Callum and the Nought pupils in the Cross school dining room. 

Callum finds himself attacked for being a Nought while Sephy runs the gauntlet for her friendship. Divisions are ingrained and run deep.

Inequality breeds revolution, in this case the Liberation Militia, a paramilitary force with that age old dilemma of being freedom fighters or terrorists depending upon which side of the fence you gaze over.

Callum’s elder brother, Jude, played by Nathaniel McCloskey, is firmly on the LM’s side, a born power to the people revolutionary, and his father Ryan, played by Daniel Copeland, is drawn into the fight.

He started as seeing Callum’s scholarship as a chance for him to better himself, but the violence, the reaction and prejudice bends him away from Callam’s phony chance to Jude’s positive action.

The two families, the McGregors and the Hadleys are cleverly often on stage at the same time, separated by Ben Cowens’ lighting. Parallel worlds tied together by the tenuous relationship of our tormented lovers.

Both families have their problems, Sephy’s mother Jasmine, played by Amie Buhari, is a drunk while Ryan is sentenced to death for an LM shopping mall bombing he was not responsible for.

His commutation to life being short lived as he was to die, or perhaps be killed, who knows, in an escape attempt.

Our lovers' world is changing. Sephy goes off to boarding school and Callum . . . he goes off to war with both unaware of messages that could have changed everything they sent but were not passed on.

The two are to meet again three years on. They are now on different sides  in a dramatic and dangerous finale, Sephy a Cross, Callum a Nought and LM warrior.

But love doesn’t care about sides and finally a life of angst, of fear, of struggle is forgotten in a moment of passion.

As in Shakespeare’s tale it is the one moment when their troubled world stands still and averts its gaze.

They are to have one more moment together as Callum is arrested. Sephy, now pregnant, stands by him, but she is ignored, her truth is not the truth Kamal wants to hear and Sephy’s sister Minerva, played by Steph Asamoah, can’t even accept it when Sephy explains it as simply and honestly as she can.

The real truth would upset Kamal’s natural order, his version of the truth has to prevail, so Callum, who refuses a peace offer of a prison term in return for a confession, must die, found guilty of a crime even the supposed victim says never took place . . . the end might seem farfetched, an injustice beyond what any society, no matter how corrupt, prejudiced or divided, would tolerate.

Except . . . in the USA in the 70 or so years up to 1951 almost a quarter of the 3,347 black people lynched had been accused of rape and almost all were not guilty, many falling foul of the broad definition of rape in the Southern states to include sexual relations between a black man and a white woman. Consent being no defence. And that figure doesn’t include the questionable verdicts against black accused by Southern white juries.

Dodgy trials being a feature illustrated in that school reading list staple To Kill a Mocking Bird and Noughts & Crosses has joined it as an exam regular, as evidenced by the number of groups of school pupils in the audience on Press night – all commendably well behaved incidentally, and a credit to their schools.

The play is a hard watch, hardly a barrel of laughs, and although there is some sympathy for our two lovers, real empathy is hard to come by. Kamal is a career politician, there for himself rather than society, a bigot and a racist with no time to be a father; Jasmine is, who knows what, a drunk most of the time, hardly a good mother while Minerva is a Cross who wants a simple, Cross life and perhaps sees Callum as dangerous

Sephy and Callum are lovers but frightened of showing it even to each other and it is perhaps a weakness of the play that their relationship and the cruel fates that dog it at every turn are not more prominent, after all, this is their love story, a story with much more to it than we are told.

Meanwhile Ryan is a terrorist out of desperation, Jude an embittered race warrior who sees Sephy as a deadly threat to his brother, Meggie finally despairs of her hopes for a peaceful life in an honest world with everyone safe and then there is Andrew Dorn, played by Tom Coleman. His part is a small one in the play but looms large in the big picture.

He's the bought Nought working for Kamal, second in command of the LMs but a spy, an informer, a traitor.

The result, a sort of 1984 meets Romeo & Juliet, is a political satire, turning the society we have grown up with on its head, showing racism literally in terms of black and white. By switching roles, switching supremacy, switching sides, old arguments are overloaded, old prejudices become irrelevant.

As a book and as a play Blackman has posed new arguments, perhaps the simplest being is there really anything to argue about at all.

The cast of ten, including Abiola Efunshile as school pupils among other roles in the hard working ensemble, carry the story along at a cracking pace on a flexible three walled set from Simon Kenny which gave us a rear video wall where we saw TV news broadcasts, and Callum’s mentally scarred recluse sister Lynette, whose tragic secret Callum carries to his grave.

On Press night Adam McCready’s sound could have done with a tweak here and there, some dialogue being lost but directed by Esther Richardson this was a hard hitting, no holds barred production. Raw, emotional and angry theatre. To 19-11-22. 

Roger Clarke


Noughts & Crosses returns to the Midlands at Coventry Belgrade 24-28 Jan, 2023

Index page Alex Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre