Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Dancing at Lughnasa - Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer: Brian Friel
Director: Alastair Whatley
Reviewer: Sue Locke

Brian Friel’s award winning play was revived a couple of years back at London’s Old Vic, a stunning production produced in the round. Having loved that I came to Alastair Whatley’s The Original Theatre Company’s new touring version with some amount of trepidation but the gift of great storytelling shone through yet again.

The play is set in the imaginary village of Ballybeg, Donegal in the summer of 1936. The story is seen through the eyes of Michael the seven year old illegitimate son of Chris (Siobhan O’Kelly) who is bringing him up with her four sisters, the Mundys. Agnes, the eldest sister, a local school teacher, runs the family as if she is the mother of them all; she brings in the money whilst Agnes and Rose do home knitting and Maggie looks after the animals. Their brother, Father Jack, a priest, has recently returned after many years abroad in Uganda and is suffering from malaria. The sisters feel he should be feted as a returning missionary but it appears that Jack may have “gone native” and has trouble remembering English. The one joy in the sister’s lives is the radio they call Marconi. It brings them music and they reminisce of their earlier lives when they would go dancing and when the hopes of love and marriage were still alive in them. Into their lives comes Michael’s errant father, a Welshman called Gerry. Gerry is a dreamer who manages to stir emotions in more than one sister.

The whole play takes place in an open fronted cottage where the heart of living occurs around the kitchen and stove and then the action spills outside into the garden alongside the cottage. An imaginative set by designer Victoria Spearing and the costumes by Anna Harding convey the hardship of life in mid 20th Century Ireland.

This was a great ensemble piece with standout performances by Mairead Conneely as Agnes whose self righteous control of her sisters still left space for our pity at her lost life. Also special mention to Patricia Gannon as Maggie whose love of dance is only matched by her love of cigarettes and a good time. Director Alastair Whatley also played the narrator as a grown up Michael.

A beautifully written and produced tale of  women who have seen their dreams and desires dashed by poverty and the loss of eligible young men to emigration. The drabness of their lives rescued by memories and music and the ability to dance their troubles away no matter how briefly. A very moving tale with hope and love at the centre of it.

Runs until 5th of March, 2011
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