As the audience files into the theatre, a tree stands alone on stage, accompanied by birdsong. It is neither joyous nor mournful, only slowly occupying the audience’s awareness like a gradual awakening. We then jump straight into the first scene in a cafe in Abuja, Nigeria. A woman sits opposite a preacher who is trying to convince her to become a Born Again Christian, while she is obviously uncomfortable. After a while it is revealed to the audience (for those who haven’t read the memoir the play is based on) that this is the first meeting between Jackie Kay, played by Sasha Frost, and her biological father, played by Stefan Adegbola.
Adapted for the stage by Tanika Gupta, Red Dust Road follows Jackie Kay’s search for her birth parents, a journey that takes her from Nairn in the highlands of Scotland to her father’s ancestral village in Nigeria. There isn’t really a traditional plot line – instead, it’s a non-linear, darkly comic exploration of the self, told through snapshots of Kay’s experiences growing up mixed-race in 70s Scotland. Recitations of Robert Burn’s ‘Address to a Haggis’ and references to a then-26-year-old Angela Davis are used to illustrate the time and place, rather than any elaborate set design. Kay was raised by her adoptive parents, two communists from Glasgow, and a lot of the montages are centred around this family, a solid base for the tree to stand on. Elaine C Smith and Lewis Howden are so enjoyable to watch as these warm-hearted and passionately political parents; their performances bring a much needed levity to the story’s more serious moments.
In fact, the chemistry between all the actors, as they shuffle through a range of characters, brings out the emotive qualities of an already strong script. Seroca Davis showcases her versatility, playing a good-natured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before switching to the brittleness of an old woman in the very next scene. Elicia Daly also stands out with her understated dominance over the stage, especially in her quiet intimate scene with Kay as a schoolgirl.
A small stage is built for a play like this, for holding small domestic moments and memories; communist get-togethers, ceilidhs in the living room, looking out to the sea from a window in Nairn. The non-linear structure of the scenes mimics the easy enjoyment of flipping through a family scrapbook. While the childhood segments can jar – the lack of costume change for Frost doesn’t make it obvious she’s portraying a small child – this is a small drawback to an otherwise successful narrative.
Red Dust Road doesn’t rely on the audience’s desire to know what happens next, but focusses instead on the separate elements of self discovery. After all, the meeting between Kay and her birth father happens right at the start of the play. The meeting between Kay and her birth mother Elizabeth, played with a wonderful suppressed intensity by Irene Allan, is not a defining moment but flickers in and out of the play narrative like a guttering candle. When we reach the climax of the play, on Red Dust Road itself, it is not the culmination of a journey but rather a snapshot from its heart.
Red Dust Road runs at HOME, Manchester until 21 September. It will tour to Stirling and Inverness in autumn 2019. More info here.