Writer: Winsome Pinnock
Director: Miranda Cromwell
Forced to close before its third preview at the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, the premiere of Winsome Pinnock’s new play Rockets and Blue Lights couldn’t be more important this weekend. As violence erupts in Central London and Britain starts to confront the bronze and marbled symbols of its slave-trading history, BBC Radio’s Lockdown Theatre Festival presents Pinnock’s time-travelling piece about the experience and legacy of slavery.
In 2007, well-known actor Lou is bewitched by Turner’s painting The Slave Ship, after appearing in a film set on the ship and worrying about her dying grandfather who arrived on the Windrush. Spooling back to rehearsals a year previously, Lou fights to keep the story of Olu intact as the writer is pressured to focus on white abolitionists. And back in 1840, Turner is sketching ships at the dockside where he meets Thomas, a black sailor joining a reconstituted slave ship on a merchant voyage.
Pinnock’s play makes an intriguing transition to radio, using a narrator reading some of the stage directions to guide the audience between the three strands – 2007, 2006 and 1840. At first it seems incredibly ambitious, so many characters in each era to keep track of with actors doubling parts and lots of different relationships to unpick. But over the course of this two-hour drama, Rockets and Blue Lights casts a spell.
Slavery may have been formally abolished, but Pinnock’s drama mixes historical examples of trading to Brazil in the 1840s with modern day attempts to rewrite the experience of slavery as a story of white saviours. This “history hasn’t really been resolved” Pinnock explains in a brief introduction to the play, and the emphasis on ghosts and an occasional mysticism has a haunting quality, while the pull of the sea and the circumstances around the creation of Turner’s painting are compelling and tragic.
All of this is vividly rendered in Miranda Cromwell’s production, using sound effects as radio dramas do so well, to help the audience to visualise the play as it must have been on stage as only two audiences managed to see it. One of the best scenes overlaps concurrent celebrations turned sour – Lou’s party and the 1840s Ball of the Blacks – while the sections that deal with Lou’s movie being rehearsed and shot are filled with fury about marginalisation and the obsession with ‘torture porn’ necessary to get such films made.
The sections with Paul Bradley’s Turner are the weakest and it isn’t so clear what Pinnock’s purpose is in including the character at all; he is gruff and unpleasant, deceiving his way onto a ship and turning a blind eye to a significant piece of treachery. There is also an underexplored strand about inherited madness as Turner ‘sees’ his dead mother, sometimes as a mermaid, which doesn’t entirely translate to radio.
Kiza Deen is excellent as Lou, both fascinated and moved by the history she discovers through the film, standing-up for her character’s real experience. Karl Collins is engaging as Thomas whose warmth and support for the family he saved is affectingly tested onboard a former slave ship, while Kudzai Sitima as his daughter Jess and Rochelle Rose as his wife Lucy emphasise the ongoing human cost of slavery and its abolition.
Pinnock’s play draws a direct line from slavery to Windrush and centuries of dehumanisation that have led to the #BlackLivesMatters movement. The collective effect of her multi-stranded drama is powerfully told on the radio and couldn’t be more relevant. The Lockdown Theatre Festival has given life to new plays delayed by the pandemic and while it is great to hear Rockets and Blue Lights, eventually, this is a play that needs to be seen.
Available here until 12 July 2020