Dancing at Lughnasa - Review

Brian Friel’s fine play tells of the five Munday sisters. Impoverished and struggling to eke out a living on a farm in a remote Irish village and each facing a future where marriage is more of a dream than a reality. The arrival of a radio lightens the hardship and deprivation of their daily routine thereby prompting the return of dancing into their lives.

Although likened to Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Friel’s heroines, having little choice as to their futures, are more deserving of the audience’s sympathy.

This memory play has Michael, the illegitimate son of the youngest sister, recalling events of the summer of 1936, leading up to the family’s disintegration. The grown up Michael acts as both the narrator and also the voice of the boy during the action of the play. John Tolputt’s gentle and dreamy delivery proved him to be a spell binding and lyrical story teller.

Dancing is the motif that runs throughout the play. From references to it at the pagan festival of Lughnasa, the description of African Tribal ceremonies through to the impromptu dancing generated by popular music from the radio. It also led to a frenzied burst of traditional Irish high stepping that was extremely well executed. There was even a bit of Fred and Ginger performed by Michael’s mother Rose and his feckless and often absent father, Gerry.

As with his previous production – It’s a Wonderful Life - Gerry McCrudden assembled a quality cast and his well thought out direction resulted in a high calibre show. Between them they brought out all the differing aspects of the play –tender warmth and gentle humour along with pathos and poignancy. A lot of attention had been paid to detail and authenticity although the Irish accents seemed a mixture of North and South. Occasionally the accents interfered with the clarity of the dialogue.

The set and the lighting were cleverly used for both interior and exterior scenes and I particularly liked the panelled walls that suggested the countryside around the farm.

Whilst each of the sisters deserved the audience’s sympathy Jennifer Keappock had the hard task of obtaining it for school teacher Kate. Being the only one having a paid job she has taken on the role of Mother to the household and as such has become the bossiest and more practical of the sisters. Keappock radiated charm when her character was relaxed but became fearsome in her anger and her sanctimonious outbursts. Her impressive performance was marred on a couple of occasions when, in her softer moments, she let her voice drop to the point of inaudibility.

Each of the sisters differing personalities were finely realised. Sarah Davies’s Maggie was an earthy creation who, as the joker of the family, often used her humour to defuse moments of tension. Her lively and boisterous performance was counterbalanced by the quiet one from Claire Armstrong as Agnes. Through the use of subtle looks & gestures she conveyed the anguish arising from the secret feelings she had for Gerry, the father of her sister’s child.

Chris, youngest of the Mundy sisters is still besotted by Gerry Evans who fathered her son. Evans a feckless charmer walks in and out of their lives as he chooses. His absences cause her deep depression but she lights up when he returns. Amy Holmes was most moving as her eyes and face radiated the love, joy and hope that Evans’ visits generated.

Charlotte Grimes played Rose, the childlike sister with development disability. It was a sensitive portrayal that attracted sympathy and not ridicule. The last member of the family was their brother Jack, a missionary priest lately returned from Africa where, to the displeasure of his superiors, he had gone native. Paddy O’Keeffe brought a gentle confusion to the ailing Jack in the first act that was replaced in the second by a fervent, almost evangelical, performance as he described the native ceremonies.

Martin Gogarty as the charmer Gerry Evans, forever full of schemes but doomed to be one of life’s losers, reflected well these aspects whilst showing himself to be a stylish dancer.

Barrie Jerram
21 February 2010