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Dancing at Lughnasa

Brian Friel
The Original Theatre Company
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring
(2011)

Dancing at Lughnasa production photo

Set in rural Ireland in August 1936, the outside world has not yet encroached into the lives of the five unmarried sisters living together in one house with seven year old Michael, the illegitimate son of Chris (Siobhan O’Kelly), but it is on its way, and the hopes and dreams of the women are soon to be dashed. Their story is told by an adult Michael recalling his childhood surrounded by mother and aunts and continuing with the sad story of what became of them all.

This is the time of the originally pagan festival of Lughnasa which celebrates the harvest, and designer Victoria Spearing completely captures the essence and atmosphere of the period and place where a big sprawling kitchen is the heart of the home. All gather here for work, talk, arguments, shared worries and to listen to the ancient and temperamental wireless set in pride of place on the dresser bringing them news and music in spurts as they try to keep their home together while, in the rest of the world, progress marches on depriving them, and very many others, of their livelihood.

Well researched, and a slightly autographical tale, performances are so superbly realistic that it is as if we are watching real events and not acting at all. Domineering Kate, a teacher, is the breadwinner for the family, a staunch Catholic and a “damned righteous bitch” says Mairead Conneely’s Agnes, but arguments are soon forgotten and Agnes goes back to knitting (expertly) the gloves which, with the help of young, innocent and slightly simple Rose (Bronagh Taggart), bring a little extra money into the house.

Maggie (Patricia Gannon) is the cheerfully optimistic one, happily getting on with her household tasks but given to bursts of unrestrained and joyous dancing when the wireless surprises them with an Irish Jig, music which sets the feet tapping and they all join in with uninhibited and exhilarated abandon. Even Victoria Carling’s Kate, with the burden of responsibility getting her down, cannot resist a surreptitious sway to the rhythm.

The seventh member of the household is their brother Father Jack (Daragh O’Malley) sent home from his post as a missionary priest in a Ugandan leper colony ostensibly for reasons of illness, but it is soon revealed that far from converting the natives it seems that they have converted him

A constant theme throughout the play is the contrast between the restrictions of strict and censorious Catholicism and the “open hearts” of the natives. Kate loses her teaching job due to her brother’s defection.

Despite the poverty and inevitable sexual frustration restrictions of their lives, there is humour and hope throughout the play, often from their conversations with the invisible young Michael, but the main entertainment is from his feckless father who interrupts their lives and promises treats which never materialise. This is Paul Westwood as Gerry, a would-be Fred Astaire, dancing his way irresponsibly through life and soon off to fight in the Spanish Civil War - on the ‘wrong side’.

Alastair Whatley plays the adult Michael with sympathy and sensitivity, and also directs this deeply moving and heartrending play, knowing that the sisters’ lives are without hope, but beautifully portrayed are the last bastions of a rural Ireland and a life which is gone for ever, except in the memories of those who were there.

Touring to Eastbourne, Bracknell, York, Loughborough, Huddersfield, Buxton, Durham, Southend-on-Sea, Yeovil, Worthing, St. Andrews and Glasgow.

Robin Strapp reviewed this production at Basingstoke.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor