Brian Friel’s remarkable 1990 play seems like a mess at first.
After Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s middle-aged narrator Michael formally explains to us that this is all a distant memory of his childhood in County Donegal, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ breaks down into an almost cacophonous babble of women’s voices. We are plunged into the summer of 1936 and the boisterous shared home of his unmarried mother Chris and her four sisters Agnes, Rose, Maggie and Kate, as they go about their daily business in formless fashion, a young boy’s memory of things he was only half paying attention to.
But the writing is like music and the beginning is like the orchestra warming up. In Josie Rourke’s dreamy revival, themes, movements and motifs soon emerge and become apparent. Heavily based on Friel’s own childhood – which you have to think accounts for his remarkable way with female characters – it unfurls into an elegiac, intoxicating snapshot of a family as a community that’s a bulwark to the fickle world.
The title refers to a multitude of things: dancing is what the sisters do at home, for fun, or as an expression of joy; it’s what they dream of going out on the town to do, only they’re haunted by an awareness that they’re now considered too old to do so; and it’s the common language that Chris and Michael’s feckless, charming drifter father Gerry share – their relationship is impossible, but when they move together you can forget all that. Dancing is always an escape from the world.
The play is a bubble in time, a composite memory of a brief period in Michael’s life when there was an order and certainty that approximated happiness, when his chaotic family was together, when he almost had a father, when music played constantly on the temperamental family wireless.
Robert Jones’s set and Mark Henderson’s lighting encapsulate this perfectly. Most of the action takes place in the kitchen of the sisters’s home, which is stylised as sitting on its own in a field in front of a wheat-covered hill. It is picture perfect but in a strange way, like an immaculately crafted model diorama blown up to life-size, like Michael is trying to piece it together from jumbled impressions rather than clear recall. Like memory, it’s not quite real.
In an exemplary ensemble cast, it’s difficult to really single anyone out, but there is something particularly magnetic about Alison Oliver’s Chris, who threatens to be overwhelmed by the pressure of being an unmarried mother in ‘30s Ireland but never loses her girlish vibrancy. By rights, Tom Riley’s Gerry should be the villain of the piece, but his childlike lack of guile is winning – together there is something strangely beautiful to the failure of their relationship and their refusal to hate each other. And there’s a great supporting role from Ardal O’Hanlon as the girls’ damaged older brother Jack. Recently returned from a long stint as a missionary in a Ugandan leper colony - yup, O’Hanlon is technically playing a character called Father Jack - he moves from broken mess to a vibrant, lovable eccentric who scandalises the town with his turn away from Christianity.
The crux of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ is that it’s a sort of happy tragedy. Via Michael’s narration we find out long before the end that things don’t turn out well at all for most of the characters. The mood is often nervy: it is obvious that the sisters’ world is unlikely to last, with everything from war in Europe to the industrialisation of Ireland encroaching. But ultimately it feels like the little universe these five women have carved out matters, that it meant something to Michael and because of that it will always live on (and of course, it really has – the play we are watching in 2023 is Friel’s own memory of 1936). It’s not bliss, but it is community, safety, sisterhood warmth, and dancing. A beautiful production of a beautiful play.