Wednesday, 26 April 2023

REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has the expertise and the resources to do full justice to classic plays and this revival of Dancing at Lughnasa (the harvest festival in Ireland), which I first saw at the Lyttleton in 1991 with Frances Tomelty and Alec McCowen, is a testament that they can deliver beautifully staged, brilliantly acted drama that charm and enthral the audience. Yet though I recalled the title and was charmed by it the first time, I had no memory of the characters, or the story so came to this revival fresh.

Brian Friel’s best-known play is exquisitely staged on the large Olivier stage creating a perfect setting of rural Irish countryside a walk away from Ballybeg with its rolling hills, mature trees and fields of wheat surrounding the quaint cottage shared by five sisters. It perfectly captures the idyllic atmosphere of the summer of 1936 when the world outside was changing with war in Spain and manufacturing replacing the traditional homespun skills. The absence of walls for the cottage cleverly gives an intimacy to the small room they spend so much time in but also allows us to clearly see their reactions as they listen or peer out at what is happening in the garden. I’m not sure any commercial theatre could stage a play so perfectly and this is surely what we should expect from our National Theatre.

The action, if we can even describe it as that, takes place as a nostalgic memory, tinged with sadness, of the grown-up love child of one of the sisters, Michael, who narrates the story. We never see the young boy playing with his kites in the garden, but we hear his voice through the narration. The device reminds us that this is a memory, but it would perhaps be more poignant if we had seen the innocent young child interacting with his aunts. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor powerfully and clearly tells his story, mainly from the forestage, engaging the audience as his eyes sweep across the auditorium.

The five sisters are beautifully played each with a distinctive character but all quietly accepting their roles and sharing delightfully well-timed side glances and looks at each other, especially at the antics of the two men who come into their home. Uncle Jack is played with a devilishly glee by Ardal O’Hanlon, who seems to have adopted African culture over his religious upbringings, and Gerry (Tom Riley), Michael’s occasional father, a salesman escaping to a grander purpose, for no obvious reason, by joining the International Brigade in the War. Curiously Gerry is described as Welsh but sounds like an English Toff.

The play belongs to the sisters. Kate (played with a stern motherly oversight by Justine Mitchell) is the older sister, a devout catholic and a local schoolteacher who holds the girls together. Maggie smokes Wild Woodbines and does the family cooking and is played with a joyous sparkle and wit by Siobhan McSweeney making the most of every movement and reaction to great comic effect. Chris is Michael’s mother, the youngest of the five, and played with a gentle caring intensity by Alison Oliver. Agnes, the glove, and dressmaker (Louise Harland) and Rose (Blaithan Mac Gabhann) seem to quietly drift in and out of the room as if half-remembered. They are at their very best dancing in a frenzied wild passionate routine around the kitchen table to the music on the unreliable wireless which takes them back to a time when they were more carefree and happy and had hopes for the future.

You are left with a sense that this was a deeply autobiographical personal story about the author’s own mother and family and his upbringing without a father. It provides a snapshot in time, a short period when the people who mattered most to him, came together in that cottage, the sisters, his uncle, and his father before some went their separate ways in search of work, love, and something more fulfilling in their lives. It succeeds because it is written with such charm and wit and played with wonderfully judged delivery so that the relationships between them shine out as beacons of love, caring and contentment that was about to be lost. Yet it does not emotionally engage you and you feel disconnected as an observer of someone else’s long-lost nostalgic memory.

The production of this play as you should expect from the National Theatre is practically perfect and it was a joy to watch the fine cast creating that lost moment in time but, like the first time I saw it, I will remember being charmed by the characters but feel the memory of the story will fade and leave no lasting legacy except perhaps a warm glow of half-remembered pleasure.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Row L, Stalls | Price of Ticket: £66

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