Theatre reviews: Wings Around Dundee | Celestial Body

Written by Fringe First winner John McCann, Dundee Rep’s new lockdown-inspired show is immediate, honest and lovable, writes Joyce McMillan

Danielle Jam and Benjamin Osugo in Wings Around Dundee PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Wings Over Dundee, Dundee Rep ****

Celestial Body, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

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It seems a strange moment to announce it, with Covid infection rates close to an all-time high. Yet nonetheless, live theatre in Scotland is opening up again this autumn; and doing its impressive best to make audiences feel as comfortable as possible, while they feel their way back into the world of live entertainment.

At Dundee Rep, for instance, it’s all masks, hand sanitiser and distanced seating for those who want it, as the Ensemble welcomes back live audiences with a fragile but gorgeous 85 minutes of Dundonian magic realism by Fringe First winning playwright John McCann. Wings Around Dundee is a lockdown tale that revolves around the story of young Jess, a mixed-race Dundee teenager who lives with her older brother James, and their (white) grandmother, Jeannie.

At the height of the first lockdown, last spring, Jess is seething with rage; but when she unfurls her banner in City Square demanding the truth, with only two talking seagulls for company, her real anger is directed against her gran, whom she suspects of keeping secrets about the death of her mother, who died soon after her soldier husband, Jeannie’s son, was killed overseas. James, meanwhile, has mental health problems, and remains crouched in his room over a treasured biography of the great anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, who visited Scotland in the 1840s as one of the first black Americans to be an honoured guest here.

The development of the play’s story – loosely structured around the theme of how much truth we can bear – is uneven, with a couple of unnecessary twists. Yet as an immediate response to the experience of lockdown in Scotland – the claustrophobia of months confined at home, the surging awareness of racial politics and of Scotland’s role in the slave trade after George Floyd’s murder, the pervasive urban presence of hungry seagulls, and the impact of lockdown on young people – Wings Around Dundee emerges as an impressively immediate, honest and lovable show; featuring a trio of powerful performances from Danielle Jam, Ann Louise Ross and Benjamin Osugo as the family at the heart of the story, and fine light-touch production by Finn Den Hertog, illuminated throughout by Lewis Den Hertog’s gorgeous video graphics of his home city, sloping down to the silvery Tay.

A Play, A Pie And A Pint, by contrast, launches its 12-play autumn season with a foray into hard-hitting black comedy, courtesy of brilliantly satirical Scottish playwright Morna Pearson, and her new 50-minute play Celestial Body. When Bruce and Hamish meet in the gym, it seems like pure chance; super-fit Hamish gives weedy Bruce some training advice, and after a few weeks agrees to come round for dinner with Bruce and his wife Laura.

Laura, meanwhile – a lonely-looking figure addicted to surreal online horoscopes – has already met handsome Hamish when he arrives to fix the washing machine; but none of this quite prepares us for the play’s pitch-dark climax, in which the whole tragedy of Bruce and Laura’s marriage is revealed. With typical Morna Pearson flair, Celestial Bodies leaves us uncertain whether to laugh, cry, or scream; but it benefits from three terrific performances from Neshla Caplan, Ross Mann and Samuel Pashby, and the show reopens this comfortably distanced Oran Mor season with a surge of energy and flair that leaves us hungry for more – both more pies, and more new live drama, this strange autumn.

Wings Around Dundee is at Dundee Rep until 25 September; Celestial Body is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 11 September, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 21-25 September.

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