Tag Archives: Kiza Deen

“Rockets and Blue Lights” at the National Theatre

Winsome Pinnock’s play tackles the subjects of race and history with ambition and ability. Splitting the action between the 19th century and the present day, we see JMW Turner painting and contemporary creatives at work on a film about him. As both sets of artists engage with the issue of slavery, Pinnock’s dialogue with history becomes vivid and urgent.

There’s trouble among the filmmakers as a director and his star, Lou – a particularly grand role for Kiza Deen – argue over artistic integrity. Meanwhile, the story of a young artist and his inspiring teacher (characters you immediately get behind, carefully portrayed by Anthony Aje and Rochelle Rose) brings another level to the debate about the role of art and education. The commentary on creativity and society is intelligent and provocative.

Such vivid questioning of whether art can only “bear witness” or whether it can do more make the historical part of the play pale slightly. It’s a shame. The plot is strong: an adventure for Turner and a tragedy for a black sailor called Thomas make compelling stories. The latter includes a love story especially well portrayed by Karl Collins and Rose. But the politics Pinnock wants to explore sound hollow in her well-drawn characters’ mouths.

It isn’t that people didn’t question slavery or race during this period – it’s just the effort to state these debates in our terms. Maybe how the 19th century would phrase the argument is too unpalatable or, more likely, incomprehensible. Pinnock makes the debate smart and relatable. It’s good to credit the past with intelligence while interrogating it. But we can’t pretend that the dialogue doesn’t jar now and again.

Any reservations disappear after the interval as Rockets and Blue Lights really takes off: increasingly ambitious, full of surprises and even more political. Bringing together periods in time is well done – with dance and ghostly visitations. The use of music, composed and directed by Femi Temowo, is inspired. Arguments about the legacy of slavery, and injustices both past and present, lead to strong imagery from Pinnock.

Having the cast double up between the historical periods ensures impressive performances – and suggests connections between characters that make the mind boggle. Director Miranda Cromwell’s staging is strong, switching effortlessly between the time periods and handling distressing scenes with power and tact. This fine balance is particularly impressive – there is none of the “torture porn” that Lou fears might appear in the film she is working on. Considerable sophistication is the undercurrent for the whole show.

Until 9 October 2021


Photo by Brinkoff / Moegenburg

“The Phlebotomist” at the Hampstead Theatre

There is a great excitement around playwright Ella Road and her first impressive play. After a sell-out premiere last year and a transfer from the venue’s studio space into the main house – with an Olivier nomination under its belt – congratulations are in order. Road’s ear for dialogue is sure and the production strong. It’s a shame that control of the subject matter is lost in this sci-fi romance. Ultimately, the genre ends up manipulating the writer, rather than the other way around.

The scenario is that a system of genetic ratings based on blood tests changes our not-too-distant future. Road has no shortage of ideas, and a series of films crowds the show with news reports or fake adverts. But none of this is particularly novel or hard to foresee, so the play as a whole becomes predictable. While the testing is initially to assist in healthcare, its application in jobs, dating and then eugenics appears quickly. Each could be the focus of a play in its own right but, crammed together, the topics feel thinly explored. There are too many questions and some silly inconsistencies, while tacking on environmental concerns doesn’t help either. There’s a reason sci-fi has so much detail – without the geeky touches, the future world we find ourselves in fails to convince.

Road escalates outrage at a steady rate but with little change of pace in the structure of her scenes, so the show feels slow. By the time we’ve got the legalisation of “post-natal abortion”, attempts to challenge the audience feel more than desperate – they are naïve. Tasteless or provocative? That might depend on your view of human nature. But it seems fair to suggest it’s a dramatic own goal to curtail a plot about the fight again “rateism” so quickly. Only one figure (and a couple of news snippets) attempts to challenge this nightmarish system. A subplot about dealing in blood is carefully contained as a matter of financial corruption. The characters are worryingly lacking in morality or even agency.

For all the problems with the plot, the production is good. Road benefits from ambitious direction from Sam Yates and a superb cast that laps up her well-written lines. Mark Lambert makes for an intriguing impartial observer in his role as a hospital porter. Kiza Deen does sterling work as a protestor who develops Hodgkin disease during the course of the play. The Phlebotomist is essentially a love story between Angus – played by Rory Fleck Byrne, who reveals his character marvellously – and Bea. She holds the occupation that gives the play its title, and the role shows Road’s strengths. A brilliant performance from Jade Anouka – who demands both our sympathy and revulsion – makes her the highlight of the night.

Until 20 April 2019


Photo by Marc Brenner