Noughts and Crosses, Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-avon

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The Independent Culture

When you remember that this time last year the RSC was presenting the truly awful, Judi Dench-stuffed Christmas turkey Merry Wives the Musical, Dominic Cooke's excellent adaptation of Noughts and Crosses might seem odd Yuletide programming.

For a start, the original novel by Malorie Blackman is targeted at adolescents upwards, and the marketing for the show warns that it may not be suitable for children. Far from being "fun for all the family", the piece brilliantly directed by Cooke tells a dark, politically unsentimentalised story about teenage love transcending the barriers in a deeply divided society.

It's a token of the bitterly tragic nature of the proceedings that the central couple, a contemporary Romeo and Juliet-style pair, achieve consummation of their love only in the bleakest and most ironic of circumstances when the Juliet-figure, daughter of the rich Deputy Prime Minister, has been taken hostage by the terrorist Liberation Militia of which her Romeo has become, after a series of dreadful blows to his family, a dedicated member.

And yet Noughts and Crosses does make very fitting Christmas fare in its profound emotional message a message delivered all the more powerfully because of the revealing jolt to our perceptions that Blackman has built into the premise and that Cooke has turned to biting theatrical effect in his fiercely fluent, humane production.

At a season when "goodwill to all men" is an often empty-sounding mantra, the play challenges us to give the phrase real meaning. It creates an alternative world in which black people are dominant, discriminating against a subjugated underclass of white people. This graphic swap of skin-colour forces us seriously to imagine what life is like for others.

In the book, Blackman can bide her time before fully disclosing the radical inversion occasioned by her thought experiment. On stage, the photographic-negative aspect of it has to be revealed much more quickly. With major refurbishment knocking two of their Stratford theatres out of action, the RSC has pitched camp for this piece in an involvingly intimate, yet roomy space in the town's Civic Hall.

The audience sit on three sides of the action in a staging of highly inventive minimalism and mobility. Delivering speeches and asides directly to us, the two leading characters privileged, well-connected Sephy (one of the black Cross community) and her friend from childhood, Callum, a white Nought from a politicised family achieve a rich and moving rapport with the spectators thanks to the splendidly open-hearted performances of, respectively, Ony Uhiara and Richard Madden.

The company hurtle in and out, conjuring up the various settings on the bare stage by bashing down a few sticks of furniture and then whirling away like leaves in a storm. The story unfolds with the right, driven rapidity but no sense of rush. Even the scene-shifting, as when Sephy is wheeled on in a school loo cubicle by her black fellow pupils, who are about to beat her up for fraternising with whites, intensify the atmosphere of intimidation. This is punctuated by oases of fragile peace when the pair meet at their beach hideaway.

The skin-swap never feels over-diagrammatic. Blackman's vision allows for redeeming features and uncomfortable complications. With her blond hair in black-copying corn rows, Callum's disturbed sister dreams of being one of them, but then we hear that she was attacked by men of her own colour for having a black boyfriend. Likewise, we feel that Sephy is too harsh on her alcoholic mother, whose liberal instincts have to be hidden to prop up her husband's political career.

Uhiara and Madden make you care intensely about the couple. The scene where they finally consummate their love brings tears to the eyes, as it's staged here with the two of them circling the bed and raptly describing to each other what happened. And the conclusion is both heart-rending and incipiently hopeful. A great evening.

To 13 December (0844 800 1110)

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