Theatre Review - Dancing at Lughnasa

In Brian Friel’s semi-autobiographical 1990 play, Dancing at Lughnasa, a middle-aged narrator, Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), takes us back to the world of his childhood in County Donegal, in the fictional village of Ballybeg.

Michael recalls the summer of 1936, when he’s seven years old. It’s harvest time and during the Lughnasa festival pagan and Christian rites are joyously entwined in an orgy of feasting and dancing.

Michael is brought up by his single mother Chris Mundy (Alison Oliver) and her four hard-working sisters Agnes (Louisa Harland), Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann), Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney) and Kate (Justine Mitchell). They teach and sew for a living but it is precarious work, times are changing, and the new factories threaten their hand-knitted glove business.

Uncle Jack (Ardal O’Hanlon) is newly returned from missionary work at a leper colony in Uganda, and is not quite his old self after having contracted malaria. He also shares some decidedly pagan ideas.

Chris’s feckless sweetheart, Gerry (Tom Riley), Michael’s father, passes by for a rare visit but shows no sign of settling down with Chris or taking any responsibility for Michael. Instead, he charms the sisters and flirts with Agnes.

What Michael remembers best is how they loved to dance. Many of the sisters’ feelings – joy, love, grace – are conveyed through their feet. They never make it to the harvest festival but their old Marconi radio provides the music.

For much of the first half Josie Rourke’s production feels ponderous, like a languid summer’s day. Robert Jones’s remarkable set, beautifully lit by Mark Henderson, almost steals the show.

A kitchen, surrounded by grass, sits centre stage. Behind, a path winds though tall yellowing grass and stretches into the distance.

Friel’s language never fails to move and this is a poignant evocation of familial love and times long past.

Until May 27

Originally published by Westminster Extra