Dancing at Lughnasa – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Brian Friel

Director: Josie Rourke

The term ‘modern classic’ gets bandied around so often that it’s almost lost its meaning, but Dancing at Lughnasa definitely deserves the moniker. First seen in 1990, Brian Friel’s autobiographical play about memory, change and stasis is Chekhovian in stature. Dancing at Lughnasa is Ireland’s Cherry Orchard and Robert Jones’s sweeping set of wheat fields conjures up long summer evenings where life seems immutable.

Speaking from the future, Michael remembers a 1936 August in his family home just outside a small village in Donegal where he lived as a boy. It is a house full of women: his mother Chris and her four sisters. The matriarch, the eldest, is Kate and she tries to keep charge of them all. She worries about appearances and shuts down her sisters’ plans to go dancing at the Lughnasa festivals, pagan ceremonies to the god Lugh that are celebrated on the nearby mountaintops. She would dearly love to attend herself but believes that they are all too old for dancing, even it seems, the two youngest sisters, Agnes and Rose, who remain unknowable with their secrets at the edges of the play.

Instead, the focus is on Kate and her two sisters Maggie and Chris. Maggie is the family clown, although she can’t conceal her streak of cruelty, especially in her interactions with her young nephew. During the play, she discovers that her best friend at school is now married with twins and when she sees Chris dancing with Michael’s father outside in the garden she remembers the dances she would go to with this friend. Maggie’s sudden, silent gasp is layered with despair, regret and jealousy, all undercut with signs of a repressed sexuality. As Maggie, Siobhán McSweeney gives a towering and brittle performance.

Possibly, Chris is the most uninteresting of the sisters. She’s still in love with Michael’s Welsh father, but wise enough to understand that for all his jolly charm and gentle buffoonery that he’s not the marrying kind and that, in spite of his best intentions, he’d leave her. Alison Oliver’s Chris is surprisingly carefree with a sense of spirit far removed from the way that unmarried mothers were meant to behave in Ireland at that time. As Michael’s father, Tom Riley is more posh schoolboy than Welsh loafer, scrabbling around to make a living, but it’s easy to see why Chris likes him and why Agnes harbours a secret passion for him.

The sisters’ endless summer is interrupted by the return of their brother, a priest, who’s been working in a leper colony in Uganda. Malaria has addled his memory, but it transpires that he was sent home for other reasons than his ill health. Ft. Jack had become native, engaging in rituals not too dissimilar to the Lughnasa ones. Christianity cannot replace nature’s cycle of death and rebirth.

But in this summer in particular, perhaps the cycle could be broken. A boy has been badly burnt in the Lughnasa bonfires while a factory, the first and belated sign of the industrial revolution in Donegal – the first axe-swipe to the metaphorical cherry trees – threatens the sisters’ livelihoods. Ft Jack has more trust in the pagan gods than he does in God. Ardal O’Hanlon plays the priest without a hint of levity and his friendly mischievous demeanour underlines that his new belief is not apostasy but a simple realignment of knowledge.

But overall, it’s Kate who takes centre stage, watching the family leave her orbit and Justine Mitchell gives a very natural performance of a woman older than her years. She would love to let loose, perhaps jump through one of the Lughnasa fires, but instead, she must attempt to keep control in a summer where everything will change and yet where everything will stay the same.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Michael narrates the tale and there is a wistful melancholy in his Irish lilt and as the sun sets on the stage, the past slips from the present and only scattered memories remain

Runs until 27 May 2023

The Reviews Hub Score


Show More
Photo of The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

Related Articles

Back to top button
The Reviews Hub