Theatre review: Red Dust Road, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Sasha Frost as Jackie Kay in  Red Dust Road, a flawed production based on the poets memoir.  Picture: Richard Davenport
Sasha Frost as Jackie Kay in Red Dust Road, a flawed production based on the poets memoir. Picture: Richard Davenport
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It’s unusual to see an Edinburgh International Festival show – produced, in this case, by the National Theatre of Scotland and HOME Manchester – take such a profound wrong turning in its very inception that even the best efforts of a dedicated cast cannot entirely save it.

Red Dust Road, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh * * *

Something like that has happened, though, with Red Dust Road, the new stage version of Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s powerful memoir about her search for her birth parents, and particularly for her Nigerian father.

The problem is that Kay’s book has a winding, weaving poetic structure, held together by her distinctive authorial voice, that works beautifully on the page, but is more problematic on stage; particularly since playwright Tanika Gupta and director Dawn Walton have made a decision to retain that complex structure, yet not to use a strong narrator’s voice to drive the drama.

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The result is a pageant of scenes – some powerful and engaging, some flat-footed, and some weirdly repetitive – that never really shape up into a play. At the centre of the story stand Jackie’s wonderful adoptive parents, Glasgow communists John and Helen Kay, played with strength and affection by Lewis Howden and Elaine C Smith; and every time they appear – singing songs, telling stories, and demonstrating the odd Scottish country dance – the theatrical energy of the show leaps and surges for a while, carrying Sasha Frost’s appealing but slightly underpowered Jackie with it. Seroca David is also vivid and life-enhancing as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who persuades Jackie to ignore the born-again Christian hang-ups of her birth father, and make contact with the rest of her Nigerian family.

Elsewhere, though – and despite a gorgeous set design by Simon Kenny, featuring a huge gilt frame twining into a deep tree-root – this potentially fascinating story of race, identity and the legacy of colonialism just wanders the stage as if in search of a central narrative, or a conflict to be resolved; in what often seems like a faint theatrical shadow of a fine book that’s several scenes too long.

Until 18 August

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