IT was an emotional return to the stage for the Dundee Rep Ensemble, following an 18-month, Covid-enforced hiatus. A full (albeit physically distanced) house cheered the company on to the boards for Thursday’s opening night performance.

The play they would see, John McCann’s Wings Around Dundee, is, as its title suggests, a heartfelt and affectionate embrace of the City of Discovery and its denizens.

Those denizens, as becomes clear in the opening scene, include the city’s often derided seagulls. When Jess (Danielle Jam as a young, black Dundonian woman with an anguished family history) takes to a one-woman protest on the steps of the city’s famous Caird Hall, she has only the gulls Laurie (Irene Macdougall) and Fusco (Ewan Donald) for an audience.

The play that McCann builds from this scene is – loquacious, English-speaking seagulls notwithstanding – about as topical as it is possible to get. With the first Covid lockdown as its frame, the drama addresses itself to the Black Lives Matter movement (which re-ignited globally, including here in Scotland, following the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of last year).

In particular, the play considers the urgent and crucially important discussion regarding Scotland’s colonial legacy.

At the heart of this, of course, is the role of Scots, including Dundee’s jute barons, in the despicable horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.

IT is to McCann’s great credit that he does all of this without a hint of didacticism or polemic. Far from being soap box theatre, the play considers these burning issues through the prism of a family drama.

The Miller family – grandmother Jeannie (Ann Louise Ross), who is white, and her black grandchildren Jess and James (Benjamin Osugo) – are (like Scotland itself, the play

implies) troubled by their failure to face up to historical truth.

The kids’ white, soldier father (killed in action) and black mother (who took her own life) died within months of each other.

Jess has for years demanded to know the truth of her mother’s death. Jeannie, however, has always felt bound by her promise to James to “protect” Jess from the facts.

In the pressure cooker environment of lockdown, something was bound to explode. When it does so, it creates a crisis that involves not only the family, but also Emily Winter’s unerringly sympathetic police officer Paula and, of course, the improbably heroic gulls.

The piece is variably effective in visual terms. Jen McGinley’s unlovely, quasi-abstract set consists of stone steps that lead to a naked billboard on which video designer Lewis den Hertog’s strong images are projected. The casting of little, illuminated balls to represent the lights of the city as seen from above is a nice idea that doesn’t quite come off.

Director Finn den Hertog has fashioned an 85-minute production that is admirably tight and focused. He and his universally accomplished cast have the measure of the play’s realism, its comedy, its seriousness of purpose and its (literal and metaphorical) flights of fancy.

The drama draws in, with intelligence and purpose, James’s hero, the great African-American fighter for the abolition of slavery Frederick Douglass, who, famously, spoke at meetings in Dundee in 1846.

The Millers’ imagined appearance on a TV game show called Family Misfortunes is typical of the play’s humour

Barrie Hunter makes a hilarious appearance as the derelict host of the show (a performance that must, surely, see him nominated for the award of Best Supporting Hairpiece).

Wings Around Dundee is a bold, brave, if sometimes overly sentimental piece of playwriting.

Without question, however, it gets Dundee Rep’s corona-delayed 2021-22 season off to a fine start.

Runs until September 25. For further details, visit: