Monday, 16 September 2019

Review: Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester)

Thursday 12th September 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Thursday 12th September, I was at HOME, Manchester for the press night of Red Dust Road, a co-production by National Theatre of Scotland and HOME. I’ll be reviewing the play on North Manchester FM on Tuesday, but here’s the blog version…

Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Red Dust Road is Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of Jackie Kay’s memoir of growing up as a child of mixed heritage adopted by white parents. Kay’s memoir explores question of identity, belonging and family, as it describes the writer’s decision to search for her birth parents, and the outcomes of that search. The source material for Gupta’s adaptation is written in fragmentary, non-linear and poetic prose – a challenging text to bring to life on stage. The resulting production meets some of these challenges well; however, it is a somewhat uneven piece that also falls flat in places.

The audience is introduced to Simon Kenny’s striking set design from the moment they arrive in the auditorium. Indeed, as I took my seat I overheard a number of conversations around me, as people discussed the significance of the set dressing visible on stage. An enormous frame hangs centre stage, its right-hand side metamorphosing into a dramatic tree branch. Before the play even began, audience members were pondering the symbolism here: a meeting of the organic and inorganic? the natural and the artificial? the distortion of a mirror, suggestive of conflicted identity?

At various points in the play, Kenny’s arresting set design (along with Dawn Walton's direction) is put to good use. It functions as a screen, for instance, subtitling the time and place of the vignettes we are watching, an important addition, as Gupta’s adaptation retains the episodic, non-linear structure of Kay’s narrative; it also, more creatively, functions as a stage-within-a-stage, with figures gathering in shadows behind the performers to illustrate and interject. On a couple of occasions, performers burst from this stage-within-a-stage and into the main performance area, giving a powerful sense of fluidity and energy to the staging.

However, while the frame device is used well, the rest of the minimal set design is rather overshadowed. Aside from the backdrop, little dressing is used, and I found myself wondering whether the main drama would have been better staged as a studio piece. Many of the scenes are intimate and ‘small’, with two or three characters sitting closely together on chairs, examining photo albums or sharing cups of tea. The familiarity of these pieces is rather dwarfed by the grandiose set design, which detracts from the more personal nature of some dialogue.

Elaine C. Smith, Lewis Howden and Sasha Frost. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

In a similar vein, the adaptation itself has an uneven feel to it. While some of Kay’s more poetic narration is retained and dramatized – a scene in which Jackie’s adoptive mother and birth mother offer contrasting accounts of the day she was born is a particular strong point – some of the power of the memoir is lost in its translation to the stage. There is little sense of peril or suspense here: Jackie’s coming-out to her adoptive mother, for instance, receives a negative reaction but no further consequence or exploration. And Jackie’s arrival on the eponymous ‘Red Dust Road’ in Nigeria – which, surely, should have been a climactic scene – is almost glossed over as a transitional episode, with the dangerous twelve-hour journey described in Kay’s book collapsed into a short travel sequence.

There are some strong performances in Red Dust Road. A number of the cast play multiple parts and, on the whole, this is done very well and lends the play a sense of vitality and energy. Elaine C. Smith and Lewis Howden shine as Jackie’s adoptive Scottish parents, Helen and John. Simone Cornelius and Seroca Davis are compelling as AJ and Claire, the women who help Jackie to explore and celebrate her identity as a black woman (and Davis also gives a very good performance as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has her own part to play in Jackie’s journey). Irene Allan plays Jackie’s birth mother Elizabeth with a wonderful brittleness, undercut with a fragility and fear that is never quite articulated. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jackie and Elizabeth meet for the first time, each proffering a gift-boxed orchid to the other, and its poignant (and anti-climactic) restraint.

Seroca Davis and Simone Cornelius. Photo credit: Richard Davenport

Despite this, the central performance – Sasha Frost as Jackie – feels somewhat underdone. That’s not to say that Frost isn’t rather charming in her hopeful and happy portrayal of the memoir’s narrator, but the part lacks any real sense of texture. Interestingly, despite the play moving about in time from the late 60s to the 2000s, Frost’s portrayal of Jackie is remarkably constant: her performance (and costume) doesn’t alter much, whether the character is meant to be 7 or 40 years old, as though we are watching an adult Jackie move amongst her own memories – an apt translation of the memoir style onto the stage. Less successful, however, is the emotional constancy of the performance. Frost’s Jackie is consistently hopeful throughout, even during some of the harsher moments in the story.

A scene of racist bullying is depicted, and others described, but the script omits some of the violence of Kay’s memoir. Most notably, Kay’s brutal description of a racist attack sustained at a tube station is excised, leaving us somewhat detached from the racial abuse that is, almost exclusively, told but not shown. This is not entirely a bad thing – the play, like Kay’s book, doesn’t dwell on struggle, but rather celebrates positive relationships. Nevertheless, the general lack of conflict lessens the force of Jackie’s quest. While there are some tears, these do not last long, and the adaptation is frequently in danger of downplaying some of the more painful elements of the Kay’s story. Again, something of the urgency and danger of Kay’s memoir of a search for identity is lost in a production that feels determined to remain optimistically and resolutely upbeat.

Overall, there is much to commend in this production, but it doesn’t quite hit the notes of its source material. Engaging performances make for a fun and compelling piece of theatre, but some of the potency of Kay’s memoir is lost in its translation to the stage.

Red Dust Road is on at HOME, Manchester from the 11th-21st September.

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