Review: Dancing at Lughnasa, Northampton Royal & Derngate
Published in The Telegraph, 30.01.2013
If you thought Chekhov’s three sisters had it bad, spare a thought for the five in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mundy sisters – all of them unmarried – don’t dream of better lives elsewhere; only that this one, in County Donegal, won’t collapse in on itself.
It’s August 1936 and the family is shackled by stigma. They’re all tainted by association: by youngest sister Christina’s son, Michael, born out of wedlock; by their “simple” sister Rose; by the encroaching senility and pagan beliefs of their brother Jack (Christopher Saul), an ex-army priest and onetime local hero. The latter threatens their main source of income, prudish Kate’s teaching job at a local Catholic school. Industrialisation is eroding the other: selling hand-knitted gloves. Beneath the brave faces, practical jokes and bursts from the wireless — christened Marconi — everyone knows they’re teetering on the brink.
Friel shows us all this as Michael (Colm Gormley) remembers it. Seven-year olds don’t see sombre realities, only summer days and smiling faces. “Atmosphere is more real than incident,” the adult Michael later reflects, “and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory.” Most overwhelming is the fleeting return of Michael’s gadabout father, Gerry Evans (Milo Twomey), who sweeps in and reignites his mother’s sunny disposition, promising marriage before disappearing to fight Franco in Spain.
The effect is grinding Chekovian despair given a golden hue. We only catch glimpses of the sisters’ apprehension, though hindsight lets us learn their bleak fates. The tragedy is that this looks like the best of times. It simply precedes the worst.
And yet Friel’s play, which is exquisitely well-woven, wears its density lightly. Richard Beecham’s soulful production dwells on the theme of religious repression — smart given Ireland’s impending Catholic constitution. Naomi Dawson’s stunning design makes the Mundy household a woodland clearing: open walls, wooden furniture and a grassy kitchen floor. But the sisters’ natural instincts, a desire to joke and dance that Friel ties to local pagan festivities, are constantly curtailed by Kate’s strict sense of Catholic propriety. The one moment they burst free, in a whirling jig through clouds of thrown flour, has a joyous, heart-swelling abandon.
Friel’s more agonising moments aren’t hit so note-perfectly, but the sisters are all beautifully played. Michele Moran lets Kate’s true spirit surface in flashes and her alliance with Caroline Lennon’s Maggie, a born joker, is quietly tender. Gráinne Keenan’s Agnes, resigned to caring for Rose (a disquieting Sarah Corbett), is particularly affecting, while Zoë Rainey catches Christina’s natural radiance and lets you imagine the elsewhere the sisters daren’t.
Photograph: Robert Day