Review: Noughts & Crosses, Bristol Old Vic

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman is one of my favourite books, and I recently paid a small tribute to it in my post on favourite children’s books. What I hadn’t realised until the end of last year was that the book had been adapted for the stage and would be touring the UK, including a local venue, this year. Cue an excited message to a friend I’d been discussing the book with, and before I knew it I’d booked tickets for a group of us to go and see it at the Bristol Old Vic last weekend. I was excited, but with a sense of trepidation. I always compare book adaptations to the original book and quite often find them lacking. I wasn’t sure if this Noughts & Crosses adaptation would be the same.

I needn’t have been concerned. Pilot Theatre managed to bring the production of Noughts & Crosses to life and did it incredibly well. As I mentioned, I’m always critical of adaptations and often leave wondering why those chose to skip certain parts, or why it wasn’t quite how I imagined. I remember thinking at the time that I first read the book that it would probably make a really good film but, on reflection, I actually think I prefer it as a play as it allowed a certain amount of emphasis to be placed on parts which could go unnoticed in a film.

For those unfamiliar with the work, Noughts & Crosses is a story set in an imaginary dystopian society where the system is based on race. Black crosses are the ruling class, whilst white Noughts are the underclass. It deals with multiple issues which are highly relevant in today’s society (race, gender, class, politics and mental health to name but a few), whilst focusing on the relationship between two teenagers who society tries to keep apart.

Programme for Noughts & Crosses

There was only a small cast, only eight actors who took on each of the different roles, with only eight main speaking characters. This had a nice symbolism to it – there didn’t need to be more than the characters who represented the two families as what these families were going through could easily have been anyone else in the Noughts & Crosses world. The actors also took responsibility for the small number of set changes that were necessary throughout the performance.

The staging was kept very simple, which allowed it to act as a blank canvas for the important messages being told through the performance, but also made it quite striking. I liked the way that the character of Lynette remained hidden but visible, much as she did to her family, throughout the relevant sections of performance, and how Callum was also able to come and go through the scenery. The TV screens that were used added to the sense of dystopia and created a sense as if someone was always watching. It also helped develop an understanding of the political regime in place, and the use of propaganda, creating a parallel to Orwell’s 1984.

I felt like the split scenes were particularly clever, when both families were on stage but reacting in different ways to either something on the screen, or just their own family life. This showed the contrast between the two families, but also heightened the similarities.

I thought that all the characters were really brought to life and were played very well. Heather Agyepong managed to reproduce the naivety of Sephy whilst Billy Harris clearly demonstrated the struggles that Callum was going through. Jack Condon as Jude also deserves a mention as he was exactly like I had imagined the character to be in the books; thuggish, belligerent and also slightly vulnerable.

I have to admit as it’s been a while since I read it that I’d forgotten how dark and traumatic it was. Perhaps it appeared more so acted out in front of me rather than being read, but I certainly came away questioning how I’d been able to process it all at the age of 11. I’d definitely recommend going to see the production and I don’t think it matters whether or not you’ve read the book. The audience appeared to be a mix of those who had and those who hadn’t. Those who have will be better prepared for some of the darker parts of the play, but the plot is still clear and the message is still powerful regardless. Don’t be put off by the description of it as a “Romeo and Juliet story”; whilst there are clear elements of this it is actually so much more.

Esther Richardson, the director of the production (who should be applauded for producing a wonderful piece of theatre) describes in her introduction in the programme: “I’ve never forgotten Malorie telling me that her greatest wish was for Noughts & Crosses to no longer be so relevant… Staging this piece of work felt necessary and urgent at the end of 2016, and that feeling has only intensified.” Reading these words particularly resonated going to see the play the day after I’d heard the news about the terrorist attack in New Zealand. Apparently a TV adaptation of Noughts & Crosses is in the works for the BBC, and the fifth novel in the Noughts & Crosses sequence will be published in summer 2019. I hope that they help to bring the story to a new selection of readers.

If you were a fan of the book, or enjoy a dystopian drama, then I would urge you to go and see the play on what remains of its tour. It is continuing to tour around the country until mid-May 2019. Further information can be found on the Pilot Theatre website.

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