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Dancing at Lughnasa – Royal and Derngate, Northampton

Writer: Brian Friel

Director: Richard Beecham

Reviewer: George Attwell Gerhards


Dancing at Lughnasa Royal and DerngateBrian Friel, with his 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa, presents an aspect of modern history that, by-and-large, goes unappreciated today. In comparison with the turmoil of the 1930s – the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War and ultimately WWII – the state of Irish politics and agriculture doesn’t seem so significant. Dancing at Lughnasa defies this suggestion. The action is set around a seemingly happy-yet-unconventional family of five single sisters; their older brother Jack just returned from 25 years as a missionary in Uganda; and Michael, the love child of Christina, the youngest sister. Social and economic hardship threatens to destabilise their quiet country life in County Donegal.

This production of Dancing at Lughnasa is both gently funny and touching, while not at all holding back from the miserably tragic existence faced by those in poverty. Firstly, credit must go to the actors. The entire cast give astounding performances presenting the Mundys as a heart-warmingly likeable family. Caroline Lennon as Maggie is phenomenal, striking the balance between funny and lamentable with aplomb. Similarly, it is testament to the efforts of Michele Moran that her Kate, the strict matriarch of the house, receives just as much sympathy from the audience as any of the girls. In fact, Friel’s greatest achievement here is not to have a villain of the piece, so to speak. With the arrival of Milo Twomey’s Gerry (the father of Michael, the love child) one expects him to become the hate figure of the play but he comes across as likeable as the girls, twiddling his cane and humming along to the wireless. It then becomes clear exactly what is to blame for the events of the play – the situation the family finds itself in. Friel’s motif of dancing, which gives the play its title, occasionally offers the girls a glimpse of happiness. Each dance is a brief sojourn to another place, where work and poverty can’t reach them, before being cruelly returned back to reality as the wireless cuts out. One particular highlight is a spontaneous five minute dance by the five girls in the first half, gradually brought to an end as they realise they’re back where they started.

Naomi Dawson’s set is an impressive structure, rich in detail, which displays the cottage from the outside with all the walls stripped down, a wooden beamed roof floating over the action. It’s effective in encompassing the kitchen and surrounding gardens onto one stage, and not a single set change is needed.

If there is one off-note, it would have to be the character of Michael. Colm Gormley’s performance is fine and the technique of him voicing the 7 year old Michael while other actors mime around an ‘invisible’ boy is clever and effective (plus it avoids needing a child actor) but his rôle as narrator is sporadic, and when he does have dialogue he gives huge parts of the plot away – somewhat ruining the element of surprise.

That said, this remains a superb production of an excellent play, rich in splendid performances, which demands to be seen.

Runs until 15/6/2013

Picture: Robert Day


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