'Dancing at Lughnasa' review – this remarkable family play mixes sparkling comedy with unbearable poignancy

Read our five-star review of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa starring Ardal O'Hanlon at the National Theatre, with performances currently through 27 May.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

In 2018, Ian Rickson staged a luminous production of Brian Friel’s Translations in the Olivier. Now, Josie Rourke repeats the feat with Friel’s 1990 Olivier and Tony-winning play Dancing at Lughnasa, featuring a spellbinding cast with some popular sitcom names: Siobhán McSweeney and Louisa Harland from Derry Girls, and Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon.

Perhaps that helps to account for the beautiful balance here of sparkling comedy and almost unbearable poignancy. Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play framed by narration from Michael, who looks back to a halcyon time in 1936 when, as a seven-year-old boy, he lived with his mother Chris and her four unmarried sisters, Kate, Maggie, Agnes, and Rose (based on Friel’s real family), in the fictional Irish village of Ballybeg. The big excitement that summer was the arrival of a Marconi wireless.

Robert Jones’s bucolic design is ravishing. A cosy kitchen almost seems to sprout from the rural landscape (there are no walls to the house, the one departure from the production’s absorbing, lived-in naturalism), with its sloping cornfield, blue-skied backdrop, and floor-to-ceiling fringing that catches Mark Henderson’s golden lighting and adds a shimmering effect, as though the whole thing might be a mirage.

Yet there is hardship here too. Michael is a “child out of wedlock,” and, rather than salvaging the family’s reputation, the return of their missionary brother Jack from Uganda casts a further shadow, as it becomes clear that he “went native”. Money is tight: they rely on schoolteacher Kate’s meagre income, plus the little that Agnes and Rose make from their hand knitting. But, as industrialisation looms, their whole way of life comes under threat.

Thus Michael’s memories aren’t just tinged with nostalgia, but with a powerful, Chekhovian ache. The brilliance of Friel’s play is how it alternates domestic scenes with his narration (affectingly delivered by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, who also voices the invisible young Michael). It reveals the fates of the characters in advance, meaning we mourn the loss of something that hasn’t yet gone, and it shifts our view of them each time we re-enter the action.

It’s easy to distrust the promises of feckless Gerry, Michael’s absentee father (played with Bertie Wooster-esque relish by Tom Riley), but our foreknowledge makes his honeyed words even emptier. However, we also see the elation his presence brings to Chris in the moment. Right from his giddy entrance, twirling his walking stick, he shifts the mood. And though Kate furiously disapproves, she admits that Chris’s “whole face alters when she’s happy.” As, indeed, Alison Oliver’s performance vividly shows.

In fact, Rourke exquisitely illustrates how every arrival or piece of news affects the tight-knit clan, like a stone making ripples in the water. She first establishes the routine of this distinctly female space, so that even as they argue, they continue chores like knitting, ironing and cooking, the actors weaving around one another in the cramped space as though performing a silent dance (the detailed movement comes courtesy of Wayne McGregor.) Then we see how that routine is upset by change.

When Father Jack enters, befuddled and shambling, there’s a lovely piece of farce as each concerned sister tries to pull out a chair for him. Later, a reinvigorated Jack horrifies Kate and Maggie, who are trying to fold sheets, with his cheery tales of Pagan sacrifice back in Africa; he winds up chasing them around the kitchen, then ripping the sheet out of their hands to better capture their attention.

While Jerry’s visits make Chris light up, they wreck Agnes (Harland conveys a well of agony in a fleeting moment). Even the indefatigable Maggie is poleaxed when Kate reports that her childhood friend Bernie is back after a long absence. A storm of emotions pass across McSweeney’s face, impossible to pin down, as she recalls Bernie’s beauty with…fondness, regret, desire, envy?

McSweeney also robustly captures Maggie gregariousness: her warmth and earthy humour power the production. But this is very much an ensemble effort, with the sisters’ relationships — loving but prickly — utterly believable. All feel responsible for the vulnerable Rose, who has an unnamed developmental difficulty (and is sensitively played by Bláitin Mac Gabhann), even as her tactlessness irritates them.

Justine Mitchell gradually cracks open the sharp-tongued, righteous, easily affronted Kate: she is actually a fiercely protective sibling feeling the unendurable pressure of supporting everyone. And O’Hanlon is wonderful as the oblivious wrecking ball – although Jack’s passion for a Pagan way of life starts to make sense.

For, as enchanting as this setting is, it’s also ruled by pitiless patriarchal Catholicism. The most joy we ever see comes not from faith or duty, but from a spontaneous dance to music on the wireless: the sisters whooping, whirling, stamping on the table in gleeful, primal abandon. It’s that bond which so captivates us, and the loss of which is so devastating.

Dancing at Lughnasa is at the National Theatre through 27 May. Book Dancing at Lughnasa tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Dancing at Lughnasa (Photo by Johan Persson)

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