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Rockets and Blue Lights Royal Exchange Theatre and Lockdown Theatre Festival Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
Event: -
Lockdown launch
On 17th March, I and many others were looking forward to the press night in Manchester of Winsome Pinnock's new play Rockets and Blue Lights, following the preview performances.

But with Covid-19 on the advance, the Royal Exchange took the unenviable decision to cancel the show, and prioritise the health of staff, acting companies and audiences.

Actor Bertie Carvel was not content to see plays like Rockets and Blue Lights packed away in a crate, and so he set up Lockdown Theatre Festival which has been broadcast on BBC radio.

Actors were sent microphones and recorded their dialogue 'down the line'. These socially distant performances were linked with each other and with the directors via video conferencing.

Winsome Pinnock's play, broadcast on Radio 3 on Saturday 13 June, uses JMW Turner's 1840 painting 'The Slave Ship', as a portal through which to explore slavery and its legacy. The action shifts between Victorian England and London 2006-7, where 200 years after the abolition of a slave trade a group of actors rehearse a script called The Ghost Ship.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange,Winsome Pinnock, Rockets and Blue Lights, Lockdown Theatre Festival, BBC Radio, JMW Turner, Slavery, radio drama
Rockets & Blue Lights - Kiza Deen (Lou) & Paul Bradley (Roy) (c)Brinkhoff-Moegenburg. Courtesy BBC and Royal Exchange Theatre

Radio is well suited to time-shift dramas - there is no scenery to move and costumes to change. On the other hand, despite stage directions - read by Winsome Pinnock herself - I found it hard at times to keep track of who was who. The dialogue was written for the stage and so had no need to include too many physical descriptions and pointers about which character was speaking at a particular time.

On the other hand, some of the descriptions of Turner's artwork paints a vivid picture in the mind's eye.

The play is also brought to life on radio with a soundscape of storms and rattling slave-chains amongst other aural effects. It made me curious to know how the Royal Exchange's excellent sound and lighting designers would have augmented the on-stage action with sound and vision.

Rockets and Blue Lights refers to a specific Turner painting and in turn to flares fired to alert ships to the location of shallow (shoal) water.

Royal Exchange Theatre, Winsome Pinnock, Rockets and Blue Lights, Kiza Deen, JMW Turner, slavery, Lockdown Theatre Festival, BBC Radio
Rockets and Blue Lights, 1855 by By JMW Turner

In terms of dialogue, the play, directed by Miranda Cromwell, is at its most compelling when protagonists confront each other about their complicity with the slave trade and other forms of exclusion and proprietorship.

Turner is questioned about his investments in the slave-labour dependent Sugar Works. Thomas (Karl Collins) is challenged on what it meant to buy his wife's freedom. Roy (Paul Bradley) questions fellow actor Lou (Kiza Deen) about why she didn't invite him to a social gathering and they debate how much common ground there is between slavery and the social and economic circumstances of white working-class life.

This is a drama in which the personal is political. As Peter Piper (Paul Bradley) says: "We're all enslaved . . . it's a question of degree."

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, Winsome Pinnock, Rockets and Blue Lights, Kiza Deen, JMW Turner, slavery, Lockdown Theatre Festival, BBC Radio
Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying ó Typhoon coming on ("The Slave Ship") by JMW Turner - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Public Domain,

At present, there is only determination and not a date for the Royal Exchange's reopening. A statement on the website ends: "Our stages may be empty and our building may be closed but we cannot imagine a life without stories. Stay safe and well and we will see you when the houselights go back on."

Royal Exchange Theatre,Winsome Pinnock, Rockets and Blue Lights, Lockdown Theatre Festival, BBC Radio, JMW Turner, Slave Trade, radio drama, Rochelle Rose Karl Collins
Rockets & Blue Lights - Rochelle Rose (Lucy) & Karl Collins (Thomas) (c)Brinkhoff-Moegenburg. Courtesy BBC and Royal Exchange Theatre

As Bertie Carvel said: "If I can find a way, every single production that has been forced off the stage because of the lockdown will find a new platform at this festival!"

Let's hope that when the pandemic is truly out of the picture, theatres will somehow find the revenue to put new writing back in the limelight.

Rockets and Blue Lights is available on BBC Sounds until 12 July

The other plays in the Lockdown Festival, which are also available, are:

Shoe Lady by E.V. Crowe.

Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett

The Mikvah Project by Josh Azouz.

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Why? Thought-provoking new play about the slave trade and its legacy, rescued by radio
Cost: Free on BBC Sounds
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