Fringe Online 2020
Directed by Miranda Cromwell, with Music by Femi Temowo,
Sound Designer Elena Peña, Associate direction by Mumba Dodwell, Dramaturgy by Suzanne Bell
Produced by Jeremy Mortimer and Steve Bond, Additional production by Jack Howson, Sound Editing by Adam Woodhams. Production Coordinator Gabriel Francis
Production Manager Sarah Kenny, Executive Producers Bertie Carvel and Joby Waldman. A Reduced Listening Production
To return to BBC Radio Drama on 3, and the production returns to the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester in 2021.
Bertie Carvel’s second BBC production for the quartet of abruptly-truncated productions is Winsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights. Premiered at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester’s it’s a Drama’s lockdown production for Radio 3.
The drama hadn’t yet had its press night when theatres closed in March 2020. This second production of the Lockdown Theatre Festival captures the tang of that production on radio, using brilliant technological patchings to record its actors at home. The result’s knitted and edited by the production team also working at home.
Amid Victorian England grunge, Thomas, a black sailor prepares to take one last voyage in the teeth of family opposition, while JMW Turner already nearing 65 seeks inspiration for what was to become his great 1840 painting. Slaves Thrown Overboard, Typhoon Coming On. Turner’s solution is pretty drastic. He decides to sign on as a sailor alongside Thomas. No-one knows he’s Britain’s greatest artist, President of the Royal Academy. But he can sketch a bit of a likeness.
In 21st-century London, an actress finds herself bound by history – two centuries after abolitionists won her ancestors their freedom. Through role-doubling complex echoes are built up and the language of oppression is more – or strikingly less – filtered through period expectation and the glare of BLM Britain.
The play retells both periods of British history through the prism of the slave trade. As it happens the earlier period 1840 is the year that slaves finally quitted their enforced ‘indentures’ basically six years a slave from their apparent enfranchisement on August 1st 1834. Never mind the government spent a third of its budget ‘compensating’ slave-owners so we didn’t stop paying that off till 2015. So former slaves helped pay off the debt incurred in compensation.
Directed by Miranda Cromwell the all-enveloping music’s by Femi Temowo with Sound Designer Elena Peña, with associate direction by Mumba Dodwell and Dramaturgy by Suzanne Bell and that all important sound editing by Adam Woodhams
Karl Collins doubles as former slave Thomas in Bristol, and the present-day metropolitan Trevor. Though the 2020 scenes set up these post-echo chambers it’s where perhaps radio pushes the strength of the production to the visceral 1840 sequences. There’s not quite enough going on in the present day to bounce it back, and this might simply work better in theatre.
Collins himself traverses not just the sophisticated troubled Trevor but Thomas’ angst as he realizes eh needs to help his growing family and can’t get work except as a seaman. Here the embryonic racism that decides opportunities pushes Thomas in a fateful direction. There’s tremendous power in some of Collins’ encounters with his family and eventually shipmates. His final nailing monologue far from home, presumed dead, is devastating. You forgive the improbabilities elsewhere for the sheer truth of it. You know it happened.
Paul Bradley’s Turner is a complex curmudgeon lustful with his housekeeper Cathy Tyson’s Danby (his pornographic drawings were burnt by Ruskin) yet with a conscience, needing to depict what he intuits is happening at sea. It causes him in a sense to walk into one of his many seascapes, and risk all on the hazard of art with a typhoon coming on. It’s improbable but who cares? There’s the truth of Turner’s responses to slavery but what if he were faced with a dilemma: help a man and betray his captain and mates, or help the oppressor? Bradley’s long-rifted grainy tones suit this Turner’s perfectly. He’s fine to in his latter roles of Roy and Peter Piper.
Another strong voice for conscience is Anthony Aje’s Billie, a lyric tenor contrast to Collins’ downright honesty.
Collins’ partner in both periods is Kiza Deen’s angst-ridden Lou and latterly Olu and the pain in their 1840 relationship as Deen’s Lou distrusts chance and even her husband’s optimism, as well as his chances, is painful and ultimately more than poignant. That’s hardly relieved by the pain in Kudzai Sitima as Jeanie – later less pained but still perplexed as Jess. Similarly Rochelle Rose’s performance as both Essie and Lucy.
Matthew Seadon-Young’s gimlety Ruskin contrasts with the sinister roughness in Johnson/ and Decker. Natey Jones as the shifty Caesar and Reuben provides another strong profile.
Tyson also portrays Mary, Meg and Shona though its perhaps the sexually accommodating housekeeper Danby that remains in the memory. Everal A Walsh plays a flurry of roles: Clarke, Pearson, Benjamin.
Winsome Pinnock’s said: ‘A major theme of Rockets and Blue Lights is the legacy of history and the ongoing impact of this legacy on the descendants of Africans who were enslaved. Another theme of the play is the significance, necessity and power of love in the face of such a history and the challenge of achieving that. I am also interested in the representation of painful subjects – what we choose to represent and what we deny.’
It’s the power of love – Lou and Thomas – versus usurious lust (Turner and Danby) that distinguish this play. That and the complex echo of bereft children, and the final valedictory paean to endurance, love, and wrenched freedoms. And how art can redeem itself, if not the artist, in the very depiction of its shame.