The first thing that strikes you about this National Theatre of Scotland production is Simon Kenny’s set, the centrepiece a 30-foot high wooden picture frame, with the top corner a wild, untreated tree branch. Initially, this appears to be something which has broken out of the David Lynch exhibition in the gallery next door. But it’s an apt metaphor for the twisted family tree at the centre of Red Dust Road; the story of poet and novelist Jackie Kay, a woman with a complex personal history, one which traverses the globe, and several different, seemingly incompatible cultures. Kay is a gay, mixed race woman, given up for adoption at birth, and raised by John and Helen – a pair of white communists and CND activists in 1970’s Glasgow.
Skilfully adapted by Tanika Gupta from Kay’s popular memoir of the same name, and beautifully directed by Dawn Walton, it’s a play about love, identity and belonging. Kay knows she was lucky to have found such amazing adoptive parents; John and Helen frequently remind her how special she is, and make numerous visits to the local school to address the racism and bullying Kay regularly encounters. As one of Kay’s black friends sharply observes: ‘We are children of empire … you’re constantly having to say “I belong here”.’
The story zigzags back and forth across time and continents, as Kay decides to track down her birth parents. Her real father – once a student at the University of Aberdeen – has returned to Abuja, Nigeria. A born-again Christian, he is eager to convert Kay to his religious ways: a charming man, yes, but ultimately too devoutly principled to offer her anything except religious propaganda. ‘You shouldn’t have wasted your time visiting that barm-pot’, is John’s hilariously wry response when she returns home to Glasgow.
Kay’s birth mother is not much better. A converted Mormon living in Milton Keynes, with a new husband and family, she initially comes across as utterly self-absorbed. There are no emotional fireworks – save a clumsy hug – and the two women meet on only four occasions. Kay Senior eventually tells her family about Jackie – not that she is her own flesh and blood, merely ‘a special friend.’ Sadly, it becomes apparent that this is a broken, possibly traumatised woman (her son committed suicide), and in the early stages of dementia. It would have been interesting to see more of this character; in fact, there is enough meat in these small encounters to fill another, entirely separate drama.
Alan Bennett found his ideal avatar in the guise of actor, Alex Jennings, who has doubled for the playwright on several occasions, most successfully in The Lady in the Van film. A similar opportunity presents itself to actress Sasha Frost who, whilst bearing only a slight resemblance to Kay, effortlessly conveys the writer’s natural, gentle warmth. Frost is in every scene and carries the story, in a nuanced performance, where a shy, simple look can convey a rich inner life. Some emotions can’t be faked, no matter how good the actor; when Frost smiles, she radiates empathy.
Red Dust Road is an ensemble piece however, and Stefan Adegbola, Irene Allen, Simone Cornelius, Elicia Daly, Seroca Davis, and Declain Spaine offer sterling support, in a variety of roles. A special mention to Lewis Howden and Elaine C. Smith (who audience members of a certain age will recall playing the wife of TV’s Rab C.Nesbitt in the late 80’s and early 90’s), as Jackie’s adoptive parents: these aren’t showy characters, just caring, decent people but they ground the drama, offering humour, and a much needed safe harbour where Kay can rest and be herself.
There is one plot thread that remains oddly unexplored. Having not read Kay’s memoir, I was unsure of her spoken intention to have a child, which appears at the end of Act 1 and is not pursued further. But this is a minor quibble. Red Dust Road is a funny, lyrical piece of drama, and you would need a heart of stone not to be affected by Kay’s soul searching journey. Given the darkness that’s currently enveloping the world, it’s wonderful to see a drama which reminds us of the most valuable currency in life – love and kindness.★ ★ ★ ★
Red Dust Road is at Home, Manchester from 11-21 September 2019.