Rockets and Blue Lights
National Theatre, London, till
Just occasionally, the National reminds us why it’s the pre-eminent theatre in the land with a production like Rockets and Blue Lights. Winsome Pinnock’s play began life at the Royal Exchange in Manchester last year, but made it to only its third preview because of the pandemic. The BBC then broadcast it on Radio 3 as part of its Lockdown Theatre Festival, but now, finally, it’s got to be performed in the capital in all of its live technicolour glory.
The title is taken from a JMW Turner painting – he had an obsession with slave ships – and it switches from the present to the past, to a film that’s being made on the subject, to what was happening in Turner’s life when he created his paintings, to individual black characters realising that the lives of their ancestors matter every bit as much as theirs and that their past, a grand show from the national present and future are inextricably linked.
This all makes it sound like it’s earnest and high-minded, but Cromwell gets that there is humour to be had in even the darkest of moments.
The actors play multiple roles, but Kiza Deen is on especially good form as a Hollywood hot shot named Lou involved in a deadly power struggle in the drama-within-a-drama with Paul Bradley’s wonderfully hammy co-star named Roy, playing Turner.
I thought of Michael Caine when Roy started sounding off about how it’s tough for him in the film world with his humble origins and the chance to play a character who wasn’t a Cockney had to be seized. Bradley is an all too often neglected genius of the stage and it’s wonderful that the National has given him such a chance to shine.
It’s a play that is inevitably, however, both funny and sad. Stephen Lawrence and Grenfell Tower are spoken about at the end and one of the black characters from the past asks one from the present: “Are you free?”