REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa
Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa offers a gentle yet moving portrait of an impoverished Irish family, says Jamie P. Robson.
Audience members are guided through the action of Dancing at Lughnasa by the narration of Michaela Evans (Ellen McGrath) — the illegitimate daughter of Chris Mundy (Elise Hagan), one of five impoverished sisters living together — as she looks back upon the summer of 1936.
The action of the play occurs over a single month, as the summer dwindles into autumn, and she, a young child then, bears witness to how her family’s way of life is slowly undercut by changing times and stagnant social attitudes.
Michaela’s narration of the action grants the audience access to something of the poignancy with which she remembers the summer. McGrath’s assured performance ties the play together, Michaela’s gentle smile and hindsight-aided narration encouraging the audience to share in the odd kind of happiness gleaned from the act of bittersweet remembrance, from looking back at a time when things were hardly perfect, but worse was yet to come.
The set is busy but generally effective: a crowded kitchen simulates the bustling Mundy home; a wireless dominates the table as it often dominates the conversation. The confines of the Playroom usually help to evoke both the warm intimacy and slight claustrophobia of a family living so closely together, yet are also something of a hindrance: especially, for example, when the wireless intermittently bursts into life — bringing joy to the room, always too briefly — and the sisters want to dance, and that vibrant impulse to move is hampered by the size of the space; the irrepressible, vivacious movement is rendered precarious, slightly awkward to perform.
Being a fairly gentle, domestic drama, the play lives or dies by its performances. The cast, thankfully, is very capable — including in the maintenance of their accents, despite the (inevitable and forgivable) occasional slippage. The sisters’ world is disrupted by the arrival of two men, their brother Jack (Enrico Hallworth) — recently returned from missionary work in Uganda — and Gerry Evans (Stanley Thomas), Chris’ lover and the father of Michaela.
Jack is a rather dazed man, irreversibly altered by his experience in Africa; Hallworth’s performance is one of genial confusion, of a man left bewildered by the culture which used to be his own. His English accent, however, (whilst infinitely preferable to the alternative of a bad Irish one) unhelpfully conceals the fact that he is the sisters’ brother, confusing the play for a time until the dialogue makes the relation explicit.
Gerry is initially presented as a cad: we learn that after fathering Michaela he soon deserted her mother — and whilst this is not an aspect of the character one forgets, Thomas’ compelling performance complicates matters, as it should. His warmth, charm, and easy banter combine to craft an onstage figure of palpable charisma and (what seems to be) genuine sincerity. The ambiguity of the character thereby produced is a delight. It’s an impressive portrayal from a fresher actor who, following a similarly laudable performance in Coram Boy, is beginning to make his mark
The rest of the cast also impress, though the constraints of space prevent a comprehensive litany of assessment. Alex Ciupka is particularly commendable, capturing, beneath an amiable exterior, Maggie’s indefatigable commitment to simply keeping going, to finding things to be happy about, reasons not to despair, and Connie Dent’s Rose evokes considerable sympathy on account of her naïvety and concomitant vulnerability.
Although Lughnasa does, admittedly, begin as something of a slow-burner, it steadily grows into a rather compelling, microcosmic portrait of 1930s Ireland, of the nobility present within the determined struggle to overcome the myriad hardships of an ordinary life — the economic, the social, the familial, and the romantic.