One of the best-loved teenage novels – Noughts & Crosses by former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman – comes to Birmingham in a gripping stage adaptation.

Blackman’s dystopian story about oppression and love in the 21st century is being performed in a touring theatrical version at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham.

Blackman’s novel, first published in 2001, and aimed at a young adult audience, deals with some serious and weighty themes which include class and racial divides, injustice and discrimination, political subversion and violence, segregation and exploitation, poverty, rebellion, and love overcoming prejudice.

Division and intolerance between the races are major themes in the dramaRobert Day
Division and intolerance between the races are major themes in the drama

The realistic depiction of relationships – which included an exploration of mental health issues, suicide and domestic violence – seemed to capture the imagination of teenagers, both here in the UK and around the world, and the book went on to spawn several sequels and was even adapted into a BBC series.

Blackman’s story takes the basic ingredients of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet and gives the concept a vigorous and contemporary twist which offers up a philosophical commentary on our troubled times where race and class continue to be major issues which cause daily friction, pain and misery, and division.

The love between Callum and Sephy is tested as their worlds collideRobert Day
The love between Callum and Sephy is tested as their worlds collide

The story follows two distinct groups of people who live in an alternate future British society where the privileged ‘Crosses’ (black people) rule and govern over the downtrodden ‘noughts’ (white people).

In a landscape of fear, distrust and paranoia, a prohibited romance across the social divide develops between Sephy (a ‘Cross’) and Callum (a ‘nought’).

The forbidden love between Sephy and Callum sets in motion events that will send shockwaves across the world inhabited by the ‘noughts’ and ‘Crosses’ and result in major social and political upheaval.

Effie Ansah (Sephy) and James Arden (Callum) share a beautiful chemistryRobert Day
Effie Ansah (Sephy) and James Arden (Callum) share a beautiful chemistry

Playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, who is also a screenwriter and poet – including performer – has adapted Blackman’s searing book into an award-winning and thought-provoking piece of theatre that shines a light on the major themes of the novel while pruning some material which could have weighed down a theatrical production.

Mahfouz keeps the attention of the audience focused on the emotional connection between Sephy and Callum which is the beating heart and soul of the material.

The two actors taking on the crucial roles of Sephy and Callum in this Pilot Theatre touring production share a beautiful chemistry which is vital to the success of the show.

Effie Ansah (Sephy) is mesmerising in Noughts & CrossesRobert Day
Effie Ansah (Sephy) is mesmerising in Noughts & Crosses

Effie Ansah invests a sweet textured innocence to her role as Sephy. She has natural charisma which keeps the audience glued to her as she interacts with the talented ensemble cast. As her emotions become coiled and wrought, and conflicted, so does her mannerisms, and she uses her vocal delivery to relay the state of her tormented heart.

The part of Callum in this production is played by James Arden who takes the role and puts his own unique stamp on it.

Arden shows the evolution of Callum as the world of the noughts and Crosses darkens and becomes more totalitarian. His loyalty and outlook are tested as he journeys further into the labyrinth of love, and Arden is able to convey the mixed emotions to the audience.

Noughts and Crosses rise and unite for a better world free from hatred and divisionRobert Day
Noughts and Crosses rise and unite for a better world free from hatred and division

Simon Kenny’s dystopian set design wastes no time in setting the scene. The compact and creative use of space and furniture are superbly choreographed as scenes shift and change briskly and Kenny’s designs keep pace with the tempo of the narrative.

Kenny’s costumes are also distinctive as he wraps bright and saturated colours on the Crosses while dressing the noughts in subdued and washed out hues.

The stage sets, including Ben Cowens’ dramatic lighting, make heavy – and effective – use of the colour red which underlines the emotional subtext of Blackman’s passionate story. The red seems to glisten and palpitate with a life of its own, the stage throbs and drips with the red lustre which highlights the rage, blood and violence, and even eroticism, as the story spirals headlong into a fiery volcano of emotions.

Noughts & Crosses is now playing at The Alexandra Theatre in BirminghamRangzeb Hussain
Noughts & Crosses is now playing at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham

Director Esther Richardson weaves a magical spell over the audience by reining in what could easily have been excessive use of melodrama by tempering the kinetic action with powerfully executed intimate scenes which get under the skin to leave an emotional resonance.

In the current unsettled and divided state of the world, where social and racial tensions simmer, Blackman’s visionary story speaks to us all about reaching out across the barricades of division and intolerance and striving for tolerance and acceptance.

Noughts & Crosses’ bold and daring story has been brought to life in a highly polished and deeply moving theatrical production.

VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Noughts & Crosses is now running at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday 19 November

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