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.

 

https://homemcr.org/production/red-dust-road/

Photography: Richard Davenport

 

Summary

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.

 

The Jumper Factory

HOME Theatre, Manchester; Wednesday 11th September, 2019

The Jumper Factory - HOME, Young Vic. Photo © Leon Puplett (02878)

 

Six very angry looking men are sat on stage, staring down the audience. This is a war of attrition, who will back down first? Each one is oozing arrogance, evidenced by the outrageous manspreading on display, as well as a nonchalant leer which suggests that these guys are just not arsed.

The six men are prisoners – inmates of HMP Wandsworth – but this is no ordinary story of life behind bars; The Jumper Factory is arguably much more about the drawn-out agonies of disconnection from the outside world.Read More »

Jerry Springer: The Opera

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester; Tuesday 13th August, 2019

JerrySpringer_2

It ain’t easy being me:

billions of voices,

making all the wrong choices;

then turning around and blaming me.

 

Nearly three decades have passed since The Jerry Springer Show burst off American cable channels and became a massive and instant TV hit across the world. The simple formula for creating entertainment out of ordinary people airing their dirty laundry in public still holds an elusive X factor that imitators have never quite matched.

Something about Jerry Springer made him the perfect host for a show so full of hostility. In amongst the violence of guests throwing sofas at each other on stage and the raucous studio audience demanding ever more fury, Jerry would often be the last hope for everyone’s sanity: the wise old man despairingly shaking his head and demanding that everyone just sit down and resolve things fairly and reasonably.

Jerry Springer: The Opera first appeared a decade after the TV show and it very much feeds off the original programme’s ability to deliver illicit entertainment through exploitation of what should otherwise be the private suffering of others. 

The cast is huge: in the early stages 22 performers are up on their feet on stage, which definitely was not big enough to handle them all. But it began to make sense when they took their seats: these performers were playing the role of Jerry’s studio audience, fully incorporated into the actual audience in attendance for the musical.

These front two rows were as obnoxious as you might expect a Jerry Springer audience to be: very loud, very wild, casually scoffing their crisps, leering and jeering at the warm-up man – theatre etiquette’s worst nightmare. 

The opening scenes became an elongated act of hero-worship and it was impossible to not get drawn in by the hype. Eventually the man himself appeared and promptly gave the audience (both parts of them) what they really wanted: a classic episode of his famous show.

“Bring on the losers!!!” was the shout from the front rows. And Jerry delivered exactly that: a shocking mix of characters and situations, secrets and lies, confrontations and violent arguments.

Jerry Springer: The Opera is delivered almost entirely in musical form: the typically happy, jolly rhythms and melodies of conventional musical theatre – yet punctuated by the most foul and offensive lyrics that you couldn’t even imagine if you tried.

JerrySpringer_3

 

The show is, therefore, effectively an extravagant dramatisation of what are already outrageous underlying personal dramas. It’s the classic formula of He Said, She Said until nobody can remember what the question is anymore. We really shouldn’t be watching this, but we certainly can’t look away from it.

At one point Jerry points out that anyone can take the moral high ground; but his is a talk show that comfortably and steadily occupies the moral low ground. Jerry Springer: The Opera does the same, unashamedly scraping the depths of entertainment morality but doing so in a very impressive and laudible manner.

Two strong moods seem to come out of this performance: one is the entertainment lust that the original Jerry Springer Show oozed, the need for fresh meat that we can all be involved in killing, the vicious hunger to look down our noses at other people for gratuitous entertainment; but that is soon followed by a second, more sombre mood, namely a guilty and uncomfortable fidgeting, an uneasy contemplation of what we ourselves have become by watching such a spectacle, of not considering what it must feel like for Jerry’s guests.

The shocking scenes are quite shocking for theatre’s standards, but they’re in the context of the Jerry Springer phenomenon, hence they become charmingly amusing rather than shocking. It’s quite easy to see why the original musical caused so much offence nearly two decades ago, but in the internet age where every human being and their problems are exposed to every other human being, the shock element feels almost familiar and thus less potent in its ability to truly shock.

The biggest achievement of this show feels as if it is the concept of the audience within an audience – the front rows of Jerry’s audience may have been behaving badly but then we were literally all in it, we all wanted the same entertainment, they just happened to be a bit louder about it. And so just as Jerry had to eventually confront the reality of what he had done and what he’d become, so did we.

In Jerry Springer: The Opera, the production team at Northern Ricochet have created a joyous, sing-along, happy clappy, arms in the air kind of show that fans of the original TV program will love and adore. The energy coming from the performing cast is extraordinary and makes for a fantastic entertainment spectacle – simultaneously a tribute and a rebuttal of an entertainment concept that once ruled the TV world not so long ago.

 

https://hopemilltheatre.co.uk/events/jerry-springer-the-opera/

Photography: Anthony Robling

 

Summary

Performance aspect Comments Score
Visual pleasure Looked a little bit cramped on stage and that seemed to limit the staging and set, almost felt as if the cast were slightly restricted by the lack of space to move and flow more easily. Otherwise it is an excellent visual spectacle with ingenious and hilarious use of props and costumes. 3
Auditory pleasure Stunningly good piece of musical composition, in a show that is entirely delivered through song, other than by the main character who seems to be the only one who speaks his lines. 5
Architecture & Theme Incredibly good piece of writing, though the second half felt a little laboured and seemed to elongate the show unnecessarily. Generated both of the main moods of the original TV show: the lust for entertainment at the expense of others, and then the guilt of laughing at them. 4
Artistic delivery Outstanding performances from what was a huge cast, every word was sung perfectly and clearly which is unusual for a musical. Every individual seemed to deliver a perfect performance in terms of timing and vocal output, the net result was stunning. 5
Overall impact An excellent production that provides two hours of non-stop entertainment in high gear. Probably will still cause offence but it feels like a known quantity, hence it can do less harm. 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.

The Community Centre

The King’s Arms, Salford; Thursday 8th August, 2019

TheCommunityCentre_4

Welcome to the community centre, a very Mancunian community centre: this is the gentle, beating heart that quietly ticks away; the lifeblood that unites an extravagant community of assorted characters.

Written by soap star and comedienne Nicola Gardner, The Community Centre depicts a day in the life of a fictional hub where visitors can come to simply pass the time away, and it appears that the under-worked staff can do the same too. Read More »

Swim

HOME Theatre, Manchester; Tuesday 9th July, 2019

Swim_1

The day has not yet begun, but she’s going for a swim. She will swim in the cold waters of the lake, it will help her to heal, maybe it will also help her to forget.

Theatre maker Liz Richardson has been on secret swimming trips, but not just to the local pool: these are wild swimming adventures, out in the open, exposed to the elements. A new hobby it seems, though one which, below the surface, appears to be as deep and mysterious as the open waters in which she’s swimming.Read More »

Bypass

Twenty Twenty Two, Manchester; Tuesday 30th July, 2019

Delivered in the final days of the 2019 Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, Bypass by Manchester-based Hung Theatre is effectively a mini festival within a festival being comprised of eight, short theatrical compositions connected by a common theme. 

The show delivers outputs from writers – mostly graduates of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Young Company – who were simply given the title, Bypass, and then proverbially poked with the following stick: 

“The home you were raised in is being concreted over, any parting words?”

Read More »

The Book Of Now

Hope Aria Academy, Manchester; Saturday 27th July, 2019

TheBookOfNow_1

It’s small and blue, bigger than a matchbox, but smaller than a letter box. 

This is The Box.  

It looks as if it could contain a ring. Or perhaps a badge, maybe a pendant? You could probably get a small necklace or a bracelet in there. Maybe it’s not jewellery at all, there could be a pair of cufflinks in there, or maybe something boring like earplugs?

This is The Box, and we need to proverbially think outside of the box to figure out what’s actually in it.Read More »