Red Dust Road – Review HOME Manchester

I’m not sure exactly when the word “dramedy” entered the popular consciousness of people’s lexicon but it seems that dramedies have been around for a lifetime. Mixing comedy and drama has become vogue and that is certainly the case for the heavyweight production from HOME and the National Theatre of Scotland, Red Dust Road. A play that centres on the memoirs by Scots Makar Jackie Kay, it tells the story of Kay’s journey from being an adoptive mixed race child to her search for her real parents, bringing into sharp focus issues such as race, sexuality and parenthood.

Given the nature of solemnity of that subject matter it unsurprising that Tanika Gupta, who has adapted Kay’s memoirs for this stage production, should look to interject some humour to offset some of the more sobering moments in this show.

Lets not pull any punches, this is a contemplative study of race seen through the eyes of one mixed raced individual set against the course of five decades and counting. Jackie Kay was the result of one Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse’s moment of indiscretion, back in a time when having mixed race children was considered something of a taboo. Kay is later adopted by a fiercely proud communist couple, and during the course of her childhood she grapples with the issues of racism, of nationality and her own sexuality.

Gupta wanted to explore Kay’s identity as a black woman seen not only through her experiences of racism as she grew up but also through her discovery of black literature. Religious fervour and faith also become a prominent part of the discussion as Kay strived to find her real parents only to discover that her mother is a devoutely practising mormon and her father is a born again zealous christian.

The set designed by Simon Kenny is surprisingly spartan given the heady mix of themes. A large scale wooden picture frame that morphs into the branches of a tree. Roots its seems is also something that is at the forefront of the night’s festivities.

You’d be forgiven dear reader in thinking that the production was all dark and heavy with these serious themes under deliberation. Yet, it is the humour residing in several scenes that is able to punctuate the darkness with some heralded lights of laughter. It’s also extremely well acted, with a fine cast. Sasha Frost is superb in the lead role of Kay, whilst Stefan Adegbola playing the biological father and the well renowned Elaine C Smith playing the adoptive mother, are positively disgraceful in stealing almost every scene they are in.

And yet I find myself questioning elements of the production. Gupta’s adaptation is admirable, especially given the breadth of themes that Red Dust Road ruminates over, but there are times that the focus is too much on the central themes. Somewhat intriguingly, Kay’s relationship with her own son is not given more gravitas and attention. Context is everything and yet it Kay own experience of parenthood that could have given this production another dimension. The pace of the show is also put under the spotlight with a running time of over two and a half hours.

Somewhere in the midst of this is a seriously impressive play with serious themes wanting to get out. For now, though, in spite of some shortcomings, this is a play to be treasured. Overlook the quibbles, dear reader, and you will find a thought provoking inspection of what it means to be black and female in these heady times.

Verdict: A thought provoking look at one woman’s journey in finding her real parents. Stellar acting and a stunning set design. At times this will make you cry in empathy and at times it will make you cry tears of laughter. 3.5 out of 5 stars

What: Red Dust Road
Where: HOME Manchester
When: 14th September 2019