The Theatreguide.London Review
Brian Friel's 1990 memory play is not particularly flashy or event-filled drama. It is a mood piece, a character piece, a capturing-a-specific-time-and-place piece. These are qualities that will make it not for some, but exactly to the taste of others.
The play is set in rural Ireland in 1936, in the home of five unmarried sisters. In the mode of such families, they have each been cast in a role - the motherly one, the prim schoolmistress, the slow one, the drudge and the slight embarrassment who has a son but no husband. The one brother is a missionary priest returned from 25 years in Africa, while the boy's father, an amiable ne'er-do-well, drops in a couple of times. The play is narrated as memory by the man the boy will grow up to become.
Not a whole lot actually happens, except that the narrator and we see in the passage of a few weeks all the seeds of later disappointments and decay. A couple of jobs are lost, a couple of fantasies of romance are put to sleep, and it becomes clear that the boy's father will never shape up - and we don't really need the narrator's final what-happened-afterwards speech to sense that we've caught the moment just before it all began to fall apart.
There is, of course, something very Chekhovian about that, and I am far from the first to see in many of Friel's plays both the sense of a past being lost and the awareness of the very tiny things that make up the drama of real people's lives.
Two themes and images run through this play, both reflected in the title. One is the conflict between elemental impulses and the thin veneer of culture and civilisation. Lughnasa is a half-pagan harvest festival still celebrated in the Catholic Ireland of the play, one that the sisters are drawn to even as they feel too prim and proper to indulge. The missionary brother has been sent home, not just for his health, but because he was more won over by his would-be converts than successful in making Christians out of them.
And the other is dance. The priest longs for the tribal dances he used to let himself get caught up in, the visiting lover woos his mistress (and exposes a secret longing in one of the other sisters) through ballroom dancing with them. And, in a moment that is both comic and slightly scary, an Irish jig on the radio sets all five sisters into a wild paroxysm of dancing that exposes lifetimes of repressed emotional and sexual energy.
Peter McDonald narrates effectively and hovers around the edges of the action throughout, remaining in character without stealing the focus even when just silently watching. Michelle Fairley as the schoolmistress captures the strain of just trying to hold things together while having the self-awareness to see that she sometimes has to be the villain.
Andrea Corr lets us sense that all is over for the young mother without letting us pity her, since she made her choices and will live with them, and Jo Stone-Fewings communicates the essential boyishness that makes it difficult to condemn the lover.
Niamh Cusack, Simone Kirby, Susan Lynch and Finbar Lynch round out the first-rate cast, and Anna Mackmin directs with clarity and sensitivity, perhaps a bit too subdued at times and not always using the in-the-round staging most skilfully, but always letting the play's quiet virtues come through.
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Review - Dancing at Lughnasa - Old Vic 2009