There were two wonderful dramatic performances onstage at the Mission Theatre in Bath last night – one around the production of Malorie Blackman’s Nought & Crosses by Next Stage Youth and the other a impressively brave stand-in showing by one of the members of the cast.

Adapted for the stage by Dominic Cooke, Noughts & Crosses tells Blackman’s tale of a society turned on its head and riven by bigotry and racism. The result is a hierarchy of have and have nots, the noughts and the crosses, one privileged and powerful, the other forced into repression and servitude. It’s a common theme but by no means irrelevant to so much of the modern world, and while Blackman’s interpretation brings little new to the discussion, it does succeed in framing the debate in a bare and straightforward manner.

Fin Hancorn as Callum McGregor, Sophia Punt as Lynette McGregor and Tom Pegler as Ryan McGregor

The great appeal of this production is that it’s presented by Next Stage Youth, made up of a troupe of 11-18 year olds and trained by and alongside the members of the adult Next Stage company. However, I can’t help but think that to focus on the age of the cast would be to do them a disservice – this was a really excellent production no matter what the age range, with genuinely confident and assured performances all around.

Which brings me to the second part of the drama. Barely a day before curtain up and the company was faced with losing one of its main actors to isolation-related Covid. With no time to recast, what to do? Up steps brave Harry Lewis, already cast in one of the main parts as Deputy Prime Minister, Kamal Lewis, to volunteer to also take on the part of Jude McGregor, jumping from one character to the other with hugely impressive skill and saving the play in heroic fashion. Great work Harry!

Back to the rehearsed drama and there was so much to admire. Both leads – Lily Chapman as Sephy Hadley and Fin Hancorn as Callum McGregor – were hugely impressive, displaying a maturity and level of naturalistic acting that was a huge credit to them both. Lily in particular brought a depth to her role that many more experienced actors would have admired, while the two of them together conjured a relationship of really depth and emotion – a joy to watch.

This is a thoroughly mature and impressive production from the Next Stage Youth troupe

Around them, the performance of entire cast was a credit to the company as a whole. Darcey Eccles was wonderfully aloof as Sephy’s sister Minerva, before unveiling her character’s loving true character; Sophia Punt bought a real fragility to her portrayal as the traumatised Lynette McGregor; while I just wanted to offer a hug of support to Miranda Webb’s Meggie McGregor, for whom the woes of family seem never ending.

If there is a slight criticism it’s around the clarity of speech from some of the actors – an occasional lack of clear pronunciation and projection meant that a few of the spoken parts were difficult to follow. But this is nitpicking – instead the focus must be on a an impressive and entertaining production of a pertinent work that offers so many relevant comments about society’s inequalities today.

Noughts & Crosses runs at the Mission Theatre until 2 October 2021. Tickets can be booked here