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Dancing at Lughnasa

Brian Friel
Theatre by the Lake
Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Fiona Putnam as Agnes, Aislinn Mangan as Kate, Laura Darrall as Rose, Isabella Marshall as Chris and Polly Lister as Maggie Credit: Keith Pattison
Fiona Putnam as Agnes, Ben Ingles as Gerry, Isabella Marshall as Chris, Polly Lister as Maggie and Aislinn Mangan as Kate Credit: Keith Pattison
Jack Power as Father Jack and Polly Lister as Maggie Credit: Keith Pattison

Like many ancient festivals still celebrated, including Easter and Christmas, the Irish harvest festival of Lughnasa became a Christian celebration but never entirely shook off its pagan roots.

Dancing is only part of the celebrations to the Celtic god Lugh, but it forms an important part of Friel's play, as it represents the dreams of the sisters Rose, Maggie, Kate, Chris and Agnes and gives them their few carefree moments as they dance at home to the music from the intermittently-working radio. Like Chekhov's Three Sisters, which could certainly have been a big influence, Friel's five will never see the freedoms of which they dream.

While there are Chekhovian influences, this appears to have been filtered through Tennessee Williams, as Friel introduces a narrator who could be the writer himself—there are autobiographical elements to the play—reminding us that what we see is all based on inaccurate memories.

Mary Papadima's nicely-paced production for Theatre by the Lake takes place on a set by Martin Johns consisting of a cutaway kitchen wall complete with kitchen range against a backdrop of the garden and the Irish countryside.

Our narrator is Roger Delves-Broughton as Michael, Chris's illegitimate son, who was only seven years old at the time of these events in 1936. Michael gives us the benefit of hindsight but also voices his invisible younger self, which is a great device but his delivery is a bit too low-key to match with the other performances.

Isabella Marshall returns to Keswick as Chris, who always falls for the Welsh charm of Michael's father Gerry even after he continually lets both of them down, a part made for Ben Ingles. Laura Darrall gives an impressive performance as Rose, who has the mind of a child but has fallen for a married man, who appears to be taking advantage of her naïvity. Fiona Putnam's Agnes is the sister who takes the most time to understand and look after Rose.

There is a great performance from Polly Lister as outgoing sister Maggie who is the only one who can puncture the pomposity of Aislinn Mangan's Kate, the schoolteacher sister who takes charge of the family and is shocked by any mention of non-Christian behaviour in the house.

However Kate has to learn a little tolerance towards their brother, Father Jack played by Jack Power, who has returned from being a missionary in Uganda after 25 years with malaria, a reduced English vocabulary and some forgetfulness. Despite his Christian mission in Africa, he appears to have "gone native" and become a little too accepting of the natives' own religious ceremonies and beliefs.

Friel uses the narrator not simply to fill in the gaps between scenes but to jolt the audience out of following along with the hopes and dreams of the characters. He interrupts a jolly scene to warn of worse things that will soon hit the family before we witness the start of them.

The big narration speech about what happens to all the characters after the play ends comes not at the end, as it would with most writers, but a little earlier, so he tells us some terrible things that are to happen before we flash back to the characters, unaware of their futures, laughing and dancing together, which is heartbreakingly effective.

That's not to say it's by any means a depressing piece, as it has plenty of Irish wit and Catholic stoicism and some beautifully-drawn characters. It's not a short play, but the time passes quickly as you enjoy spending time with this entertaining and hospitable Irish family in a very well-performed production.

Reviewer: David Chadderton