Review: Red Dust Road (Lyceum Theatre)

Jackie Kay’s memoir is adapted for the stage

Red Dust Road
Red Dust Road
© Richard Davenport

Jackie Kay is the Scottish Makar, which is our equivalent of the Poet Laureate, and Red Dust Road is her 2010 memoir, here adapted for the stage by Tanika Gupta and receiving its world premiere in the EIF. Cards on the table: I haven't read the original, so I can't comment on the quality of the adaptation or the veracity of the character portrayals in it. All I can do is comment on it as a piece of theatre in and of itself, and on that count I found it pretty average.

Kay was born in Edinburgh to a Highland mother and a Nigerian father, and adopted as a baby by a pair of committed communists from Glasgow. On its most basic level, therefore, the play is the story of her search for her birth parents, but it's also her coming-of-age tale, tracing what it was like growing up as a mixed race child in the racist surroundings of Scotland in the 1970s. It's at its strongest when it depicts her growing awareness of herself and her surroundings. Her Glasgow parents, played sympathetically by Elaine C Smith and Lewis Howden, are depicted with great affection, complete with their copies of the Daily Worker, their CND ribbons and their portrait of Paul Robeson. The scene where her mother explains adoption to Jackie is gently humane, and Jackie's subsequent social, political and sexual awakening unfolds through a range of scenes and times which are kept in order by subtle projections on a huge frame, almost the only piece of set in Dawn Walton's production.

But the play hasn't quite made up its mind about how it wants to tell its story. It's almost entirely a chronologically linear narrative, but there are some jumps around in time which are so infrequent that they feel like glitches. Worse: they feel narratively unnecessary and dramatically very odd. The biggest misstep comes at the very beginning: one of the story's major turning points is Jackie's first meeting with her Nigerian father, but it's placed right at the start, before we've got to know any of the characters or context. The rest of act one then fills in the background to that but, like an episode of Columbo that reveals the murderer at the outset, the device upends the narrative and wastes the scene.

The performances are all good. Jackie herself is played with wide-eyed energy by Sasha Frost, and Stefan Adegbola steals the show as Jackie's African father and, later, as her brother. Irene Allan brings to life the discomfort and disintegration of Elizabeth, Jackie's Scottish mother, and Declan Spaine puts in a great turn as Jackie's brother Maxwell, though he's underused in the second half.

The writing is simplistic, however: the mockery of the African evangelicalism displayed by Jackie's father relies on some pretty lazy comic stereotypes while, conversely, we're expected to be in awe of the native African spirituality that Jackie encounters in her ancestral village. More seriously, the central issues of identity and its multiplicity are skimmed over, with little of the depth of exploration that I'd hoped for, and the language never really takes flight until Jackie gets to her village on the Red Dust Road of the title. The happy ending feels a bit cheesy, too.

It's undoubtedly an interesting story but it's told in an unsatisfying way, and as it ended I was left wishing they'd done more with it.