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.
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.