Rockets and Blue Lights review: Urgent and important look at the legacy of slavery

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Karl Collins and Rochelle Rose in Rockets and Blue Lights (Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)
Karl Collins and Rochelle Rose in Rockets and Blue Lights (Brinkhoff-Moegenburg)

Powerful ideas about the legacy of slavery are addressed in Winsome Pinnock’s hard-hitting play. In a cleverly layered narrative flitting between the 1800s and today, it suggests the atrocity of human subjugation is still discussed in terms of white denial, guilt or heroism, with black stories homogenised into abstract tragedy.

The script is sometimes let down by casual plotting and cliched dialogue. But Miranda Cromwell’s production – which was shut down after its third performance at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in March 2020 – feels urgent and important. Deeply sad and shaming, it’s also startlingly funny in parts.

The show opens with black schoolteacher Essie (Rochelle Rose) and black actress Lou (Kiza Deen) – glam British star of a ropey US sci-fi series – contemplating the JMW Turner painting known as The Slave Ship, which shows drowning human ‘cargo’ thrown overboard from a distant craft.

Essie is trying to connect her stroppy young students to their history. Lou has just starred in a compromised film by a black writer/director, where her role as a strong African woman was watered down to an abused, ghostly inspiration for Turner. Worse, the actor playing Turner (Paul Bradley) is a total dick. But she might win an award…

Overlapping these stories is one of an imaginary voyage Turner (Bradley again) took alongside a black sailor (Karl Collins), which inspired him to paint The Slave Ship and its companion painting from 1840, Rockets and Blue Lights. This improbable jaunt, fueled by Turner’s guilt at investing in the sugar trade, is one of several bits of awkward plot engineering that nonetheless lead to fluent and illuminating connections.

Pinnock blends in the black milieu airbrushed out of 19th-century England, stories from Windrush-era immigrants, and the experience of Lou, who’s a TV star but usually the only non-white face in the room. The writer nails the insidious ability of racism to mutate, even in the name of ‘inclusivity’,

Rose, Deen and Collins are by turns wrenching and likeable in dual roles embracing the stark past and the troublesome present. Bradley is effectively creepy. Pinnock’s writing gives the supporting cast some fine cameos but also some terribly clumsy lines. Similarly, Laura Hopkins’ set twins a subtle evocation of land and sea with some hideously clunky furniture.

As director, Cromwell conveys some of the horrors of slavery without resorting to the “torture porn” Pinnock decries. The half-hopeful, half-despairing ending is contrived, pulling together a host of recent and historic examples of racist murder. But it feels right.

National Theatre, to 9 Aug, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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