‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ review

Theatre, Drama
Rockets and Blue Lights, National Theatre, 2021
Photo by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg Rockets and Blue Lights, National Theatre, 2021

Time Out says

Winsome Pinnock’s mercurial drama is a response to JMW Turner’s beautiful/horrible painting ‘Slave Ship’

There is a brilliant story at the heart of Winsome Pinnock’s new play: that of Lou (Kiza Deen), a Black British actress who has made it big in an American sci-fi show and has now now come home to shoot a prestige Britflick called ‘Ghost Ship’. 

An indie film inspired by JMW Turner’s haunting, horrifying painting ‘The Slave Ship’, the project is now very different to what Lou signed up for: her affable Black director Trevor (Karl Collins) has kowtowed to pressure from the money people and her entitled white co-star Roy (Paul Bradley) to turn it into a de facto Turner biopic. Her character, a slave named Olu, has lost her pre-captivity backstory, and the story is now full of the sorts of gratuitous depictions of Black pain – floggings and the like – that she was assured would absolutely not be in it.

Deen is terrific here as a woman caught between seething anger at the way the project has derailed and an innate desire to not torpedo a Black-led project that retains at least a whisper of merit; in scenes set later, we see the intense toll this has taken on her mental health.

That is a lot to be going on for a two-and-a-half-hour drama, but Pinnock pairs this lucid, gripping storyline with a much wilder one, a sort of nightmarish fantasy of a vision-plagued Turner (Bradley again) stowing away on an ex-slaver vessel called The Glory, on which one of his crewmates is Thomas (Collins), a principled husband to an ex-slave, who ends up furiously confronting the abolitionist Turner over his hypocrisy in previously owning a slave-run sugarworks. 

I’m going to be honest: I struggled with this bit. The characters are far less defined, and I was never quite sure what Pinnock was trying to say with them. I think perhaps it’s a negative of ‘Ghost Ship’, a fantasy about the story behind ‘The Slave Ship’ that takes liberties to offer a counter the white saviour trope (Turner obviously never stowed away on a ship and I don’t believe he ever owned a sugarworks* – though both of those things make a good story). But Miranda Cromwell’s production doesn’t do much to hold your hand through any of this, and these sections felt ill-defined and sloggy – though I’ll freely admit that’s because I didn’t really get them. 

‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ pleads for Black creatives to have a right to tell their own stories without deferring to white people, and Pinnock should of course tell the tale she wants to tell in the way she wants to tell it. But for me the ‘main’ plot was so strong – and had so much potential to be expanded upon – that the more impressionistic bits felt like a frustrating diversion. Indeed, Roy’s entitled rant about how his working-class background offers him an insight into Black suffering feels like a far more damning theoretical critique of Turner – who had a similar background to Roy – than anything Pinnock’s actual Turner does.

The second half does eventually come closer to tying the various bits of the play together. And a defiant, agit prop-style last scene finally altogether transcends the issue of the different plot strands, and the play ends all the better for it. ‘Rockets and Blue Lights’ is illuminated by dazzling flashes of brilliance. But, personally speaking, I could never quite grasp the full shape of what Pinnock and Crowell were creating.

* although I sort of feebly googled this point to support my hypothesis, the playwright contacted me to say there is indeed evidence Turner owned a sugarworks, and I am very happy to say my stupid theory was wrong and I misread the tone of the section.

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