Festival Theatre

Red Dust Road

Lyceum Theatre

Mary Brennan

four stars

The life that unfolds on-stage is, in its characters and details, quite specifically that of Jackie Kay, poet and novelist and currently Scotland’s Makar. But that life – as a mixed race child adopted in 1961 by a white Glaswegian couple – goes beyond a purely personal memoir: anyone who has been subjected to racial abuse will feel the hurt of the bigotry she endured while anyone who was brought up by adoptive parents will surely understand why – like the huge mirror-cum-portal that stands centre-stage – there’s a piece missing.

Red Dust Road, both as a book and now a play (directed by Dawn Walton, co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and HOME, Manchester), is powerfully connected into Kay’s 20-year search for the Nigerian birth-father and Scottish birth-mother who are the absent fragments in the ‘mosaic’ of who she is.

Not that her life with Helen and John, her adoptive parents, was anything but happy – Elaine C Smith and Lewis Howden honour the couple’s innate warmth and unconditional love without being mawkish, filling their home with Communist values and traditional Scottish culture.

Even so, Kay needs to know the who and where she comes from and so, in her forties, she travels to Abuja where the born-again Christian preacher who sired her, regards her as the sin he keeps secret. Stefan Adegbola brings a toweringly self-centred, righteous swagger to the role, and his encounters with Jackie have a boisterous energy in a production where memories – some wistful, some upbeat – arrive at a leisurely pace.

In the book, those episodic memories go back and forth in time. Tanika Gupta’s adaptation is faithful to that structure, which means most of the cast have to age, grow young, then age again – Sasha Frost (as Jackie through the years) is the lynchpin here, stubborn in her quest even when her birth parents seem disinclined to acknowledge her and touchingly radiant when she starts coming into her own skin.