Writer: Jackie Kay
Adaptor: Tanika Gupta
Director: Dawn Walton
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The life of poet Jackie Kay (Sasha Frost) has strong dramatic potential. Illegitimate, Gay, of mixed race and adopted by a Scots Communist couple Kay endures a wide variety of racist and homophobic abuse. Yet the journey to trace her birth parents does not provide the cathartic relief Kay imagines. Both of her birth parents now have new families and neither is willing to acknowledge their relationship to Jackie. Birth mother Elizabeth (Irene Allen) hides behind her Mormon faith while suffering from dementia and birth father Jonathan (Stefan Adegbola ), a charismatic preacher in Nigeria, regards Kay as an example of his past sins and is interested only in exploiting her as a redeemed sinner.
Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Kay’s memoir, Red Dust Road, is highly respectful following the non-linear structure of the source material. Gupta is determined to make the audience aware of the full range of Kay’s influences naming political activists and authors and summarising their impact upon her development. It makes for a very detailed script but has the effect of reducing the characters to narrators. Speeches become artificial and full of exposition with the characters explaining to each other things they already know but of which the audience needs to be aware. The lack of dramatic momentum makes it difficult to become emotionally engaged in Kay’s quest to trace her roots.
Director Dawn Walton does little to offset the static nature of the script. The only set/prop is a large frame, with a tree forming a corner, to the rear of the stage. Yet Walton wastes the opportunity to use the wide space available on the stage for physical action. The cast simply sit, or stand still, and talk resulting in events being described, rather than shown. The understated presentation wastes the dramatic potential of key plot points such as Kay becoming aware of her sexuality and coming out to her adoptive mother.
Both of the Acts open with Kay confronting her birth father. Sasha Frost is on-stage for the entire play and has a wonderfully expressive face, which she uses to great effect to capture Kay’s incredulity and disappointment as her birth father (Stefan Adegbola in selfish imperious form) insists on performing a blessing that looks remarkably like an exorcism and explains his smug view of the world. The scenes capture the extremity of the situations in which Kay finds herself and are both comedic and dramatic serving as a sharp contrast to the rest of the play.
There is a marked lack of atmosphere in the play. Kay’s adoptive home is clearly a nurturing environment but efforts to suggest a sense of place, with the cast making a toast to a Haggis, seem stiff and unconvincing. It is only towards the end of the second Act, as the titular Red Dust Roademerges and Kay reaches the end of her quest to the backing of Tayo Akinbode’s tribal music that a dramatically satisfying sense of achievement emerges.
The producers of Red Dust Road clearly hold the works of Jackie Kay in high esteem. Their respectful approach ensures the audience is aware of the difficulties faced by the poet and the influences on her development. However, the cautious approach of the play wastes the dramatic potential of the story.
Runs until 21 September 2019 | Image: Richard Davenport