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THEATRE ONLINE Theatre review: Rockets and blue lights

Rockets and Blue Lights
BBC R3

 

Winsome Pinnock’s “Alfred Fagon Award” winning play Rockets and Blue Lights had just started its run at the Royal Exchange Manchester when the hammer of pandemic hit the world’s pause button. 

The jolt sent shockwaves across the planet bringing creativity to a juddering halt. Yet the creative mind can overcome catastrophe and it wasn’t long before new and innovative ways were devised to provide a despairing public with stimulation, fun and excitement. 

Actor Bertie Carvel managed to convince the BBC to stage The Lockdown Theatre Festival. Four great plays, including Pinnock’s, which were abruptly cut short by the coronavirus crisis, were to be reimagined for radio. 

Prescient has been an oft-used word during lockdown but no-one could have predicted the importance and immediacy of Pinnock’s magnificent play. The mindless murder of George Floyd by a racist cop in the US  unleashed the pent-up anger and frustration built up from hundreds of years of discrimination faced by black people. “Black Lives Matter” became the chant not only in the USA but right across the world. Time too for the UK to face up to its inglorious past and acknowledge that Britain’s wealth was built on the backs of millions of black lives.

Pinnock’s play tells British history through the lens of slavery. Set in Victorian times, Thomas, a black sailor, is preparing for one last voyage. Fast forward to the present day and a young black actress is struggling with the weight of history, two centuries after abolitionists won freedom for her ancestors.

This is an intense, moving and wonderfully poetic play. Pinnock’s fine writing effortlessly weaves interlinked stories across two hundred years as she explores the cruelty and horror of ingrained racism. 

The leitmotif of Turner’s wonderful painting The Slave Ship exposes the hypocrisy of white liberal abolitionists, such as Turner, who called for abolition while profiting from sugar plantations. The play ends with Thomas looking an overseer in the eye as he recites a list of recent murdered black individuals and defiantly declares that despite racism black lives will triumph.     

There is something very poignant about the fact that the excellent cast had to record their roles in isolation. This gives an extra intimacy to the production. Once recorded each role was beautifully stitched together to produce an exceptional audio tapestry.
Listen at bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08g13nh
Paul Foley
 

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