Red Dust Road review – Jackie Kay adaptation loses its way

2 / 5 stars 2 out of 5 stars.

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Sasha Frost sparkles as a curious and vulnerable Kay searching for her birth parents, but this unfocused production fails to capture the intimacy of the soul-searching memoir

Humour and vulnerability ... Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road.
Humour and vulnerability ... Sasha Frost in Red Dust Road. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Part of the appeal of Jackie Kay’s memoir is the way it loops through time. It’s called Red Dust Road, but the poet’s path to discovering her birth parents is anything but straight. In chapters that jump backwards and forwards, from her first adult encounter with her birth mother to her childhood experience of racist taunting, the book takes a circuitous route. It has the impressionistic quality of a collage, as if to reflect the nebulous nature of identity.

The structure is such an integral feature of the book that playwright Tanika Gupta has good reason to hold on to it in this adaptation for the National Theatre of Scotland and Home, Manchester. Thus, Sasha Frost, playing Kay with a sense of curiosity, humour and vulnerability, goes through a nonlinear sequence of scenes that feels dreamy and elliptical. One minute, she’s standing alone beneath a spotlight in Lizzie Powell’s brooding lighting design, the next she’ll be surrounded by black feminist activists, meeting long-lost family in Nairn, discovering her birth father in Nigeria or getting involved with her adoptive parents’ communist campaigning.

Faithful though it is, the approach has limitations on stage. Away from the intimacy of the book, Kay’s dilemma becomes less apparent. She is an adopted child from a loving home who is nonetheless in search of self-definition, hoping that finding her birth parents will fill an emotional void. But articulating her yearning is not so easy in a theatrical setting. As a play, her story is high on incident but low on dramatic conflict. You lose sight of the problem that needs to be resolved.

The weakness is exacerbated by the structure. When scenes jump in time, they not only tend to repeat information we already know but drift towards the inconsequential. To hear Kay’s adoptive family recite the whole of Robert Burns’s Address to a Haggis might tell us about their camaraderie, but does nothing to move the story forward. Theatre thrives in the present tense, but here the past drags on the play’s momentum. Rather than spin impressionistically, it seems arbitrary and unfocused.

It doesn’t help that Dawn Walton’s production feels like a studio play cast adrift on the main stage. Despite the imposing picture frame at the back of Simon Kenny’s set, its sides morphing into a knotty trunk to create a literal family tree, the action is restrained and domestic. Kay’s journey of discovery is played out in quiet exchanges in living rooms where people show each other photographs and reflect on the old days. In other circumstances, you’d criticise the scene of 1980s disco dancing for going on too long (why the whole song?), but here you welcome it for breaking the pattern. There’s an awful lot of sitting on chairs.

Quick guide

Edinburgh festival 2019: the shows we recommend

Afternoon shows

#HonestAmy
Pleasance Dome, 12pm, until 26 August. Read the review.

Sea Sick
Canada Hub @ Kings Hall, 12.30pm, until 25 August

Algorithms
Pleasance Courtyard, 12.45pm, until 26 August

F Off
Underbelly Cowgate, 12.50pm, until 25 August. Read the review.

Fishbowl
Pleasance Courtyard, 1pm, until 26 August. Read the review

The Accident Did Not Take Place
Pleasance Courtyard, 1pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Vigil
Summerhall, 1pm, until 25 August.

Beach Body Ready
Pleasance Courtyard, 1.10pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Collapsible
Assembly Roxy, 1.20pm, until 25 August. Read the review

For All I Care
Summerhall, 1.30pm, until 25 August. Read the review

I’ll Take You to Mrs Cole!
Pleasance Courtyard 1.45pm until 26 August

Art Heist
Underbelly, 1.55pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Like Animals
Summerhall, 2.15pm, until 25 August

The Happiness Project
Army @ the Fringe, 2.20pm, until 25 August

Beat
Pleasance Dome, 2pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Spray
Assembly Roxy, 2.35pm, until 26 August

Ada Campe and the Psychic Duck
The Stand’s New Town theatre, 2.50pm, until 25 August

Anguis
Gilded Balloon Teviot, 3pm, until 26 August. Read the review

All of Me
Summerhall, 3.10pm, until 25 August. Read the review

George Fouracres
Pleasance Courtyard, 3.30pm, until 25 August. Read the review

If You’re Feeling Sinister
Gilded Balloon, 3.45pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Scottee
Assembly Roxy, 4.05pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Lola and Jo
Assembly George Square, 4.15pm, until 25 August

First Time
Summerhall, 4.15pm, until 25 August

The Incident Room
Pleasance Courtyard, 4.30pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Typical
Pleasance Courtyard, 4.30pm, until 25 August

Everything I Do
Summerhall, 4.30pm, until 25 August

The Last of the Pelican Daughters
Pleasance Courtyard, 4.40pm, until 25 August. Read the review

The Chosen
Dance Base, 5pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Daniel Kitson
Stand Comedy Club, 5pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Scream Phone
Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, 5pm, until 26 August

Four Woke Baes
Underbelly Cowgate, 5.05pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Parakeet
Roundabout @ Summerhall, 5.05pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Superstar
Underbelly Cowgate, 5.30pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Janine Harouni
Pleasance Courtyard, 5.45pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Daddy Drag
Summerhall, 5.45pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Snare
Pleasance Courtyard, 6pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Tom Parry - “Parryoke!”
Pleasance Courtyard, 6pm, until 26 August. Read the review

Evening shows

Who Cares
Summerhall, 6.20pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Tom Rosenthal
Pleasance Courtyard, 6.30pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Pops
Assembly Roxy, 6.35pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Toyko Rose
Underbelly, 6.55pm, until 25 August

Kai Samra
Pleasance Courtyard, 7pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Sophie Duker
Pleasance Courtyard, 7pm, until 24 August. Read the review

Jack Rooke
Assembly George Square Gardens, 7.30pm, until 24 August. Read the review

The Afflicted
Summerhall, 7.30pm, until 25 August

The Wild Unfeeling World
Pleasance Courtyard, 7.30pm, until 25 August

John Robins
Pleasance Courtyard, 7.30pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Zoë Coombs Marr
Monkey Barrel Comedy, 7.30pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Lucy McCormick
Pleasance Courtyard, 8pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Traumboy
Summerhall, 8.10pm, until 25 August. Read the review

London Hughes
Pleasance Courtyard, 8.15pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Huge Davies
Pleasance Courtyard, 8.15pm, until 25 August

Josie Long
Stand Comedy Club, 8.20pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Camille O’Sullivan Sings Cave
Pleasance Courtyard, 9.15pm, until 25 August

Simon Brodkin
Pleasance Courtyard, 9.30pm, until 24 August. Read the review

Musik
Assembly Rooms, 9.40pm, until 24 August. Read the review

Courtney Pauroso
Underbelly Cowgate, 9.40pm, until 25 August. Read the review

Jamie Loftus
Pleasance Courtyard, 10.45pm, until 26 August

Catherine Cohen
Pleasance Courtyard, 10.45pm, until 24 August. Read the review

Diane Chorley
Assembly, 11.00pm, until 25 August

Spank!
Underbelly Cowgate, 11.55pm, until 25 August

Much of Kay’s wry, observational humour does make the transition, however, and the cast do a pleasing job of populating the poet’s world. Elaine C Smith and Lewis Howden have an instinctive feel for the old-school socialist values of her adoptive parents, while Stefan Adegbola captures the mysterious distance of a birth father who cares more about her as a potential recruit to Christianity than as an estranged daughter. By contrast, Irene Allan is touchingly lost as her birth mother. But despite the charm and sparkle of Frost’s central performance, it’s an underwhelming voyage of discovery.