Review: Red Dust Road, HOME Manchester

Although it’s an infamous dramatic cliché, the journey of self-discovery at the heart of Jackie Kay’s 2010 autobiographical memoir is ideal for theatre. Jackie travels from Scotland, where she was brought up by her adoptive parents, to find her biological family in Africa. While playwright Tanika Gupta’s adaptation extracts the comforting warmth of family and personal growth, it doesn’t streamline a repetitively episodic structure.

Simon Kenny’s design makes an impressive statement before the play begins. An immense golden frame stands upstage, with a tree branch forming its top corner, immediately symbolising the opposition between a person’s own nature and the structures acting upon it. The frame offers phantasmagorical visions of memories and the past, lovers and friends tenderly dancing together. These subtle moments illustrate the fluid contiguity between past and present in the formation of identity.

Yet this giant backdrop towers over the small conversations which comprise the drama in the foreground, emphasising their insubstantiality. Gupta’s script cursorily passes over a catalogue of social issues – suicide, racism, homophobia, parenthood – as the anecdotal memoir structure pads out endless singing and dancing instead. 

Its thematic signposting is as blatant and inconspicuous as the huge frame, with some excruciating clichés: “Don’t be ashamed of who you are; you are you” and “I suspect the strongest drum will be my heartbeat”. Irene Allan’s Elizabeth, Jackie’s biological mother, suffers the most: she is either suddenly announcing her son’s suicide or suddenly asking “Jackie, do you believe in the afterlife?” suggest attempts to force out characterisation without nuance. 

However, Gupta finds infrequent eloquence and poetry when Jackie pieces together understanding of her heritage, reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s lyrical depiction of another self-discovery tale in Everyman

Dawn Walton’s lethargic direction does nothing to alleviate the sluggish domestic scenes. It’s only worsened by positioning groups of characters in the corners of the stage, sat talking amongst each other, energised only by the movement from house to house, chair to chair.

Fortunately, full justice is given to the author’s story through her performance by Sasha Frost. She glows as Jackie, her face beaming with yearning and bashful awkwardness. The other characters lack definition, merely caricatures of an eccentric black pastor and a stern Scottish mother. I was also left uneasy about the use of Stefan Adegbola as one black actor to multi-role every male black character in the play.

The production exemplifies the challenges of adapting books for theatre. While it’s satisfying to invest in a protagonist’s maturity across an evening, Red Dust Road’s approach to its profound identity conflicts, is as substantial as a cloud of dust.

Red Dust Road is playing at HOME Manchester until 21 
September. For more information and tickets, visit the HOME Manchester website.

Review by Matt Barton @matt_barton_