Friday, 28 January 2011

Dancing at Lughnasa, Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke 27th January 2011

Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa premiered in 1990 and has had many successful runs and even a film version starring Meryl Streep as the fiercely devout Catholic Kate.

It is 1936 in rural  Ballybeg in Donegal, that the five Mundy sisters, along with Michael, the illegitimate seven-year-old son of youngest sister Chris attempt  to get by in the  harsh economic climate of thirties Ireland. As an adult, Michael (Alastair Whatley) looks back on the events of that long warm summer, during the pagan festival of Lughnasa. Whatley offers an affectionate and caring  study of Michael's family and childhood, his narration evoking the subtle and complex pattern of the women's housebound lives, from which there's only one escape, the wireless set. Michaels recollects the   "sheer magic...the kitchen throbbing with the beat of Irish music beamed from Dublin...dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell".

However, the spell is shattered and the Mundys' relatively safe and quiet existence  is rocked by a series of events, starting with the arrival of Michael's father and the return of lapsed elder brother Jack (Daragh O’Malley) from Africa where he has been saving Catholic souls until he was accused by the Church as going ‘native’.
Dancing at Lughnasa is  a striking ensemble piece demanding  strict affinity between the sisters who live  together with no visible means of escape - only dreams in a fragile domestic ‘prison’ underpinned by repressive Catholic expectations of rural Irish society has to face up to change.

As a group, they create a boiling cauldron of raging passion  - a simmering erotic subtext that I have never felt in past performances. It reaches its climax in the iconic dance scene that, under the direction of Choreographer Lucie Pankhurst, still manages to convey a spontaneous release - if only for a brief minute.

Of the sisters simple Rose(Bronagh Taggart), impresses with her mix of innocence and dependency and contrasts starkly  to the other sisters, Patricia Gannon’s  bawdy Maggie,  young mother Chris(Siobhan O’Kelly), contemplative Agnes(Mairead Conneely) and of course  the pious yet vulnerable ‘virtuous bitch’ Kate( Victoria Carling)

All the actors brought a wealth of detail to their roles and offered, what I felt, was a fresh interpretation  achieved brilliantly by Director Alastair Whatley whose  aim  was achieved in  offering  'a fresh perspective on the play, unadorned by the shadows of past productions'. 

Reviewed for Remotegoat Website

[Produced by Original Theatre Company in association with Anvil Arts and South Hill Park Arts Centre. On tour until 23rd April 2011.]