Red Dust Road

HOME Theatre, Manchester; Thursday 12th September, 2019

Red Dust Road  National Theatre of Scotland / Home Edinburgh International Festival


Originally published as a book in 2010, Red Dust Road is Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay’s autobiographical account of the life-long search for her biological parents: a Scottish mother who worked as a nurse in the 1960s and a Nigerian father who was studying at Aberdeen University.

Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation is an assembly of multiple scenes that span fully five decades from the 1960s onwards. The random sequencing is such that these scenes aren’t delivered in chronological order. Hence, as the show progresses, what slowly begins to form is a fascinating, jigsaw-like rendering of the Jackie Kay story with all its attendant intrigues.

Red Dust Road  National Theatre of Scotland / Home Edinburgh International Festival


The show’s lead role is confidently delivered by Sasha Frost, mostly exuding an understandable and convincing sense of bewilderment and apprehension as the burden of a multi-dimensional identity crisis begins to take its toll.

But the stars of the show seem to be the benign double act that is Kay’s adoptive parents (Elaine C Smith and Lewis Howden) – a slightly batty though wonderfully charming couple who decided to save the world in the 1960s and take two adopted children along with them for the ride. The safe consistency of their reassuring presence seems to provide the on-stage Jackie Kay with a reliable anchoring mechanism as she ventures out hesitantly on her journey of uncertainty.

Red Dust Road  National Theatre of Scotland / Home Edinburgh International Festival


At nearly three hours the theatrical experience is too long, but despite this Red Dust Road does still manage to cleverly maintain focus on a small number of core themes, rather than attempting to tackle everything that is mentioned on stage.

Hence, for example, there is relatively little elaboration of Kay’s experiences when it comes to sexuality and the significant partners in her life, and there is virtually nothing to contextualise or further explain the brief mentions of her son. But what this does allow for is a longer and deeper exploration of two potent factors that seem to have shaped her life the most.


The first is the almost calm and calculated depiction of racism experienced by a young Kay growing up in Scotland. The pernicious and insidious spectre of prejudice is presented with a placid serenity which persists for a considerable length of time. What therefore comes across extremely well is the incredibly delicate fragility of what is claiming to be polite society – the outward presentation is just a facade though, because it hides beneath it a voracious beast that hungers to devour differences wherever it finds it – an organic being in some ways, one which demands the crushing of any deviation from accepted normality.

Red Dust Road  National Theatre of Scotland / Home Edinburgh International Festival


Secondly, and much more personally, Kay seems to be the victim of cultural prejudice – cruelly inflicted by her own biological parents. Both use the “that sort of thing wasn’t accepted in those days” line yet neither seems to acknowledge the extraordinary suffering caused by their decision to “keep Jackie a secret”  from their new and seemingly improved lives. Throughout the show, this comes across strongly as the most hurtful and unforgivable injustice that Jackie has to endure.

Red Dust Road is a fabulous dramatisation of one woman’s extraordinary journey: from the Highlands of Scotland in the 1960s through to rural Nigeria in the 21st century. Jackie Kay’s younger life seemed deeply rooted in Scotland in and around the loving care of her adopted parents; but it’s not hard to see why a young woman with her levels of fortitude was always going to find her way onto the red dust road of personal discovery.

Photography: Richard Davenport



Performance aspect Comments Score
Visual pleasure Beautiful set comprised of a picture frame fused with a tree branch. Wonderful lighting effects created a strong visual spectacle throughout the show. 5
Auditory pleasure Beautifully composed background and scene-change music, there simply wasn’t enough of it. 4
Architecture & Theme An excellent story though at almost three hours (including interval) it felt too long, especially as certain scenes seemed to be repeating subject matter that had already been covered. 3
Artistic delivery Brilliant acting performances from all involved, most of whom were playing multiple roles. 5
Overall impact Highly entertaining and remained compelling throughout, despite the length of the show. The story is fascinating and the lasting impression is that we’ve truly got to know Jackie Kay in a small way. 4
Final Score: 4.2


Scoring Scheme

0 Detrimental – This aspect of the performance was so bad that it made the overall experience worse
1 Weak – This aspect of the performance was poor
2 Adequate – This aspect of the performance was perfectly acceptable, though nothing special
3 Good – This aspect of the performance was above average, it pleased in some way
4 Excellent – This aspect of the performance was much better than normal, it was impressive
5 Awe-inspiring – This aspect of the performance was exceptional, new boundaries were pushed.


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