Wings Around Dundee review – dive into the city’s uncomfortable past

For the seagulls, the locked-down streets of Dundee offer slim pickings. They’re lucky to find a bin bag, never mind a discarded takeaway. No wonder Laurie and Fusco are squabbling. The two seabirds are victims of the pandemic; hungry and irritable for want of human waste.

Played by Irene Macdougall and Ewan Donald, the gulls are our unlikely entry point into John McCann’s play, a magical-realist spin around a city forced by Covid-19 to reflect.

It’s not only our physical rubbish that interests the birds. Like airborne therapists, they peck away at our emotional junk, the trash we’ve brushed aside and tried to forget.

For young Jess Miller, it’s a family secret about her mother’s death. Played by Danielle Jam, front-footed and eager, she wants the truth about her past. “When did it become a crime to just ask questions?" lei dice.

For big brother James, it goes deeper. It’s about the repressed memories of a whole city. Clutching a book about Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery campaigner who spoke here in 1846, he feels he can’t live in the present without squaring up to history. Played by Benjamin Osugo, he is steady but vulnerable, with a detachment that suggests a history of mental trauma.

As he circles with the gulls above street lights scattered like marbles across the steps of Jen McGinley’s civic stage, he reminds us of Dundee’s guilty secrets. This is a city that traded in osnaburg, the coarse linen that made cheap and uncomfortable clothes for slaves in the Americas. For Jess and James, black siblings in a majority white city, this is unfinished business.

As the news reports the death of George Floyd, Wings Around Dundee sets past against present with something of the feverish intensity of those early months of lockdown. McCann’s play can seem prosaic when it is earthbound but, in Finn den Hertog’s elegant production, it soars with bold imaginative leaps the more it ignores the laws of gravity.

With the woozy logic of a dream, it slips from the desolation of empty streets to the glitz of a TV quiz show, a vision of turbulence and fracture in the search for truth and reconciliation.

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