Andrew Palmer, Group Editor

Noughts & Crosses A Play For Our Time

Effie Ansah & James Arden
Photo: Sharron Wallace
Effie Ansah & James Arden Photo: Sharron Wallace
Group Editor Andrew Palmer chats to the director and some of the cast who are touring the North with The Pilot Theatre production of Noughts & Crosses which was seen by over 30,000 people on tour with 40% of the audience being aged under 20. It went on to win Pilot Theatre the award for Excellence in Touring at the 2019 UK Theatre Awards.

Ambling across York University campus on an extremely hot day, I eventually find the Dixon Drama Studio but only with the help a young man who works in one of the university buildings.

I creep in few minutes early managing to catch the end of the morning read through for Pilot Theatre’s forthcoming stage adaptation by Sabrina Mahfouz of Noughts & Crosses, Malorie Blackman’s gripping story of first love in a dangerous, alternate world where racism divides society.

What is the play about?
Sephy is a Cross and Callum is a Nought. Between Noughts and Crosses there are racial and social divides. A segregated society teeters on a volatile knife edge. As violence breaks out, Sephy and Callum draw closer, but this is a romance that will lead them into terrible danger.

Told from the perspectives of two teenagers, Noughts & Crosses is a captivating love story set in a volatile, racially segregated society and explores the powerful themes of love, revolution and what it means to grow up in a divided world.
I’m stuck by the sparsity of the space but at least it is cool. Watching the young actors rehearsing and collaborating on movement draws me in to their world. It is fascinating watching how they interact and are immersed in their parts; its mesmerising as they make it feel so real, enough to make me feel I am intruding; such is the power of the performance.

Effie Ansah 
All photos by Robert Day
Effie Ansah All photos by Robert Day
I’m brought back to reality when Esther Richardson, who directed the original production and runs the Pilot Theatre introduces me to Effie Ansah and James Arden for whom this is their first opportunity to get stuck into leading roles as Sephy and Callum.

...we feel grateful and honoured to be here and that Malorie gave Pilot permission to make this in the first place. It’s a gift.
The trio are excited about the forthcoming performance and Esther explains it is great to be performing a play that will hopefully start a conversation around issues relevant in society right now.

“Our theatre company has at its heart an agenda for social change in the sense that we're a company that works primarily with young people for young people. We need to be a role model for people to be compassionate and empathetic and for people to really value critical thinking,” Esther says.

James Arden
James Arden
Theatre is an international touring theatre committed to creating high quality mid-scale theatre for younger audiences, which will often be many people’s very first encounter with this form and, as Esther points out, values are especially important and something she and her team want to shout about. “It's really nice if people can get hold of who we are from the perspective of our values.”

To illustrate her point she tells me how she was moved watching the company’s movement director lead a workshop with everyone earlier.

“It was a simple trust exercise; someone has their eyes closed and the rest of the company hold that person as they fall and rise. I found it moving because there's so little value placed on creativity and we were exploring and developing what is considered these days, to be soft skills.”

Esther, not for the first time in our conversation, raises a good point: there is not enough investment in soft skills as employers bemoan, so business leaders could gain a lot by looking at how the acting profession works. “Afterall, it is what being human is fundamentally about, connecting with other people, and thinking about how you can be part of one bigger human family supporting other people by listening and responding and reacting in a values driven way. There are so many other things that life is about, and I hope theatre companies like ours demonstrate these skills because it is not just important to people who work in the arts,” Esther says.

Nathaniel McCloskey and Tom Coleman
Nathaniel McCloskey and Tom Coleman
preamble is setting the scene and to be honest it is refreshing to hear, as the arts can seem rarefied when there is no reason to be. We should all be entitled to be creative and entitled to be heard.

She subtly emphasises the point: “Everyone of us needs to be exploring both verbal and nonverbal communication. It should not just be seen as something acting people do. That’s crazy, every single person is a body and the way we are educated, live, and relate to each means we need to get better at it. We don't really talk to each other properly.

“When people start work, they sit at a desk, read, and respond to emails, may have water cooler conversation, but someone facilitates or normalises it. Here we sit down and check in with those around us. Just one of the rituals we tend to do in theatre but which should be part of everyday life.”

Steph Asamoah Amie Buhari Chris Jack Abiola Efunshile
Steph Asamoah Amie Buhari Chris Jack Abiola Efunshile
That is how the team are approaching the play. The spirit of the original production is felt across the cast. The design of the production by Simon Kenny is wonderful, the elements that worked have been retained.

However, as Esther explains, there is a completely new room of people with only two of the original company in this production.

There must be a few tweaks being considered I ponder. “Well, this time as a director, I'm approaching it like it's a classic. The first time we were writing the play, not literally, Sabrina obviously wrote a wonderful text but nevertheless when you're testing something out for the first time you devise many elements. It's a very open text in that sense because it calls for a lot of physicality and moments to be created that aren't written with words, be they a bombing or some other event. What's exciting is this time we know the text works so, so for me I can really enjoy being the interpretive artist as well as the director. We are finding completely new things. It’s exciting.

“My process is very collaborative. I can tell everyone what to do if it is necessary, but I would prefer not do that and work as a team to find the best way to tell a story.”

...I thought I was too late, and I was going to find it saying auditions were closed. I was ready to sob my heart out.
I can see that Effie and James agree as they have been listening attentively nodding their heads in unison with the points that Esther has been making.
Effie read the book years ago, rereading it again after she had been cast, to refresh her memory but is approaching it with an open mind.

“I love the novel, but I knew the play was going to be different. So, although it does follow very closely the novel, I am familiar with the characters, and am learning new things. I didn't come in with any predisposed feelings towards any of them. I just came in with an idea that I wanted to learn about them.”

It's similar for James too. He loosely knew the story from friends who were involved in the TV show, but it was completely fresh as he hadn’t seen the show or read the book. However, he nearly missed the opportunity.

“My housemate asked me if had seen auditioning for the play had opened. They assumed I had seen it and auditioned or at least learning the lines. I had no idea. I knew about the tour and how successful it was. I sprinted into my room, opened my laptop, and looked up the script with my heart racing because I thought I was too late, and I was going to find it saying auditions were closed. I was ready to sob my heart out.”

“The first thing I did was quickly learn the monologue. Then I filmed it on my own and sent it off with fingers crossed realising there were hundreds of other hopefuls.”

“The auditions were via an open call, which was amazing, as it gives people like me without an agent a big chance.”

Effie joins in saying it is an awesome story.

“When you read into the novel it's such an epic and this play doesn't feel like it's missing any important points, it's honouring the novel so much that we still tell a story.”

Chris Jack and Tom Coleman
Chris Jack and Tom Coleman
Tom Coleman and Emma Keele
Tom Coleman and Emma Keele
]Effie adds she auditioned in 2018 sent off a self tape but thinks she was too late.

“This time round when I saw it on social media, I was like you know what? I'm gonna give it a go. I really want this but this time around I thought Ok I'm just going to see what happens. I heard back and went through the numerous rounds until we got to the chemistry reads. It was a great process.”

They tell me it felt “super organic”. There were three Sephys and Callums and it was just a case of mixing and matching. They all had an opportunity to read with each other, so it didn't feel like there was anything strange happening.

The audition process was transparent and freeing as James describes so well: “When it was over, I remember calling my dad to tell him how chuffed I was with the way it had gone. He asked me if I had done enough and I thought I don’t care, in a way that I was happy to walk away recognising it had lifted my spirits!”

Effie chips in, “It was a really good day out.”

Esther was part of the casting team and what I ask, made these two particularly stand out?

“Oh, both were just fantastic,” she quickly responds. “They were electric, but it wasn't about being electric. They were exciting young actors who deserved the opportunity and whatever it was on the day they both smashed it out the park.

“We had hundreds and hundreds of submissions and our casting director, Shannon, watched every single one with input from some of the team. Every single tape was watched because we knew that people had put their heart and soul into it. The self-tape, although not a perfect process is quite good as it gives insight and let's everybody have a go.

“It was hard getting a shortlist because knew we were letting people down.

Steph Asamoah
Steph Asamoah
Effie and James, both agree it is exciting coming to a play like Noughts and Crosses as their first leading roles. Effie thinks about it everyday especially, as out of all the hundreds of people who auditioned, she gets to play a role she has coveted.

“It's daunting taking on a lead role, but it felt so comfortable because we all just gravitated to each other, and the cast is really supportive.”

James interrupts: “It’s always going to be terrifying but in the best way, it’s a huge challenge. I don’t think it would be fun if it wasn’t easy, it would seem a waste of time. Since I graduated from drama school it’s been quite a tough time with the industry and finding a place in it. I have had a lot of rejections and I really needed a hand from somewhere and then this comes along, and it just feels so perfect.”

“I guess it is one of those things where you genuinely believe you know you can do it and it's in your gut to do it or else you would not have felt confident during the auditions, but you want to be able to honour the show. I didn’t want to attach myself to the previous production but put my own stamp on it. That's when it becomes exciting … it's an exhilarating process, and I feel very, very, lucky.”

They play is quite emotional and has it challenges and for these young actors I am interested in understanding how they feel about it. They both ponder the question and Effie says that having read the novel helped.

“I knew I would not be able to escape without going through that emotional journey or the emotional aspects of the character. I guess in principle I understood what was required with me, in practise, I'm beginning to understand what’s required of me.”

“One thing that's been helpful is having, and Esther alluded to it earlier, a process for checking in. When we first come into rehearsals, we are not only aware of what is happening with ourselves but also everyone else in the room. At the end of the day, we checkout and can recognise what we've done and show gratitude, which is important. We can put down what we have done and pick it back up at the next rehearsal. It means I’m not taking home the emotional baggage of the character. I can step away and enjoy the rest of my evening.”

For James it is about not having self-doubt and being able to stay present. “It reminds me that I belong here and deserve to be here. It really does feel like I am in a tribe.”

James acknowledges the question is a hard one to answer and is pleased that there is no judgement from colleagues especially if he decides to take a risk. “Here you know you can jump in the pool and below is the lifeguard so it's just it's nice thing to do.”

For the second time I am drawn into the power of these two brilliant actors and reflect to Esther how Effie and James live and breathe the values of what Pilot Theatre is all about.

Effie Ansah in rehearsal
Effie Ansah in rehearsal
Esther is beaming and says: “It’s wonderful to hear. And yes, Andrew, it goes back to values created by such a strong team.

“This is witness that we do create an atmosphere where everyone does feel supported because these guys are going to work together for seven or eight months. Like any group there will be tough days who knows what will happen.”

“We can have confidence in ourselves to deal with those big medium small crises’ that come along.”

I am excited for all the young people that now can perform it as it may be their first experience of watching live theatre
Effie reinforces the point about support and tells me she has never toured before, well certainly not on this scale. “It is going to be an exciting challenge to greet a new venue every week. But I think, that is what is the most exciting thing, and the audience are going to be a big part of that.”

For the moment, these two lovely actors cannot see past tomorrow and are grateful for being in the present.
Both feel immensely appreciative to be working with the Pilot Theatre and certainly looking forward to the coming tour as they love what this story is all about. It excites them and both are delighted to be part of it

Nathaniel McCloskey & James Arden
Nathaniel McCloskey & James Arden
As we come to the end of our chat Effie says something quite profound. “It is great that this play has been added to the syllabus in the UK. It is massive. I studied GCSE Drama and if I had had a play text like this it would have been fantastic.

“I am excited for all the young people that now can perform it as it may be their first experience of watching live theatre.”

A mature and lovely point to make which prompts Esther to sum up our conversation perfectly: “I don’t doubt the value of this, and we are really committed and motivated. We all want more people to share in things like this and, as an ensemble, we feel grateful and honoured to be here and that Malorie gave Pilot permission to make this in the first place. It’s a gift.”

You can see Noughts & Crosses at the following venues across the North.

On NOW at York Theatre Royal
16-24 Sept 16-17 Sept, 20-24 Sept
Matinees 2pm, 22 Sept & 2.30pm, 24 Sept
Box office 01904 623568
Book Tickets here

Northern Stage Newcastle 18 - 22 October More info click here

Lawrence Batley Theatre Huddersfield 1 - 5 November
For more info click here

Liverpool Playhouse 22 - 26 November
For more info click here

The Lowry Salford 18 - 21 January 2023
For more info click here

Oldham Coliseum 14-18 March 2023
For more info click here