First published in The Times, Friday September 10 2021
As Andrew Panton, the artistic director, reminds us in his opening address, the auditorium at Dundee Rep has been empty since March 2020. It is fitting somehow that the company’s first in-person show in 18 months should be a play set in Dundee in the midst of the pandemic that also touches upon aspects of the city’s heritage. John McCann’s script is rich in references to local landmarks such as Balgay Hill, the old music school and the McManus, which the audience laps up enthusiastically. There is even a cameo appearance from the museum’s most famous resident, the Tay Whale.
The play manages an agreeable balance between everyday realism and certain whimsical elements. The main thread depicts a family struggling to come to terms with its past while also navigating an uncertain and unsettling present. Siblings James (Benjamin Osugo) and Jess (Danielle Jam) are both haunted in different ways by their mother’s suicide years earlier. During lockdown James has retreated inwards, losing himself in the writings of Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who visited Dundee in 1846. Jess, meanwhile, has trained her resentment and confusion on their grandmother, Jeannie (Ann Louise Ross), who has raised the children since the tragedy.
Finn den Hertog’s well-judged production, staged on the multiple levels afforded by Jen McGinley’s City Square-inspired set, runs to a fleet 85 minutes without an interval. Yet McCann’s script packs in references to everything from Covid to the murder of George Floyd and the role Dundee’s historic linen industry played in the slave trade. At times, indeed, the play seems a little overstuffed, although the central theme of facing up to the past in all its complexity, does eventually comes into focus. The subject matter is leavened by the presence of a pair of bickering seagulls (Ewan Donald and Irene Macdougall), who befriend James and Jess — a comic Dundonian version of those helpful talking animals that are staples of fairy tales.
Other elements of the production (notably Andrew Wasylyk’s haunting music, Lizzie’s Powell’s striking lighting design and charming video designs by Lewis den Hertog) are strong without overwhelming the story or the likeable performances from the seven-strong ensemble.
Box office: 01382 223530, to September 25. Dundeerep.co.uk