At the heart of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel is an inspired idea, all the more radical for its simplicity: imagine if the power in the world rested not with the white population but with the black.
In any other writer’s hands, a story of segregation, insurrection and political violence would be called dystopian; here, it is a whisker away from real life. The only difference is the people who can’t get plasters to match their skin colour are white.
In its tale of oppression and rebellion, the book evokes the struggles of the ANC and the American civil rights movement. In its portrait of everyday discrimination, it speaks of the here and now. Insert your own Liam Neeson reference here.
Put this Romeo and Juliet story on stage, as director Esther Richardson has done in a gripping adaptation for Pilot Theatre, and there’s no escaping the inversion. Here are the wealthy Hadley family of elite “Crosses,” spreading over the full width of the stage with the entitlement their blackness affords them. And here are the poor McGregors, officially “noughts,” colloquially “blankers”, cramped on top of each other, their pale faces denying them not just opportunity but physical space. This is also a story about class – and the damage deprivation does to mental wellbeing.
Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation skips briskly through the book, streamlining and eliding where necessary but staying close to the blueprint.
It’s an impressive distillation, although it does compound Blackman’s tendency to underplay the emotional fallout of the events. You can understand intellectually why Billy Harris’s Callum turns from aspirational student to bitter freedom fighter, but he is given little chance to reflect on it. He seems unknowable as a result.
There’s a sense too of the real action happening not with the teenagers but in the world of Chris Jack’s Kamal Hadley, a manipulative politician seen mainly as an enigmatic father figure.
Still, Heather Agyepong’s Sephy is more than equal to carrying the play’s emotional weight. Growing from insecure teen to articulate young woman, she is direct, honest and playful, and carries a spellbound teenage audience with her.
At Derby theatre until 16 February. Then touring until 11 May.