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FringeReview UK 2023

Dancing at Lughnasa

National Theatre, London

Genre: Biographical Drama, Costume, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

A flawless cast and creative team gather to a point in Josie O’Rourke’s often meticulously faithful revival, and disperse. This is the only play this year I’d willingly see again soon. Outstanding.

Directed by Josie Rourke, Set and Costume design Robert Jones, Lighting Designer Mark Henderson, Choreographer Wayne MacGregor, Composer Hannah Peel, Sound Emma Laxton,

Video Content Creator Chris Ross,

Casting Alistair Coomer CDG, Associate Choreographer Jessica Wright, Associate Director Sélimi Campbell, Associate Video Designer Arthur Skinner.

Till May 27th


Every word Brian Friel writes offers careful slippage.  His 1990 masterpiece Dancing at Lughnasa – revived by Josie Rourke at the National Theatre’s Olivier – is naturally more than a memories-play (it’s never singular); more than an interrogation of memories and elegy combined.

It’s the explosive opposite of nostalgia – liberation in dancing giving the play its title – that centres the play. Even here though dancing’s a spontaneous compensation for not being able to go to a dance at Lughnasa. But first – to shout out straight off: this is the most mesmerising revival of any Friel play I’ve seen.

“When I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936, different kinds of memories offer themselves to me” opens narrator Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor). “Cast” and “offer“ are precisely that – an adult-sided effort and flickering refraction of images. Though based on the seven-year-old Friel’s experiences with mother Chris (Alison Oliver) and four aunts, it’s partially scrupulous (original names bar Michael) and sheer fictive spin, as the programme-notes detail. Divergences don’t matter here, it’s truths Friel liberates that render this work so universal as well as quintessentially Irish – and Chekhovian.

To emphasise this, Mark Henderson’s butterscotch lighting, descending to gold later on, casts Robert Jones’ set with a haze both numinous and present.

A partially-thrust Olivier stage features a wall-less cottage with stove-and-sage-green-dresser-centred kitchen interior, slightly stage-left with Donegal countryside foregrounded, a single path winding up to gorse that often catches flame in that lighting. Above, a sky clouded lightly for August and more deeply for September, in Chris Ross’s video-content, is given a grainy treatment by tiny vertical strips some actors touch like a talisman, or remembered caress, as they descend the path.

The very stillness of the fixed set invokes its opposite. We learn how things are about to shift. First uncle Father Jack (Ardal O’Hanlan) has returned ailing – and under an obscure cloud, darkly hinted – from his leprosy mission in Uganda, health and vocabulary in tatters. Jack is disarmingly candid though about his pagan beliefs that set the eldest, Kate (Justine Mitchell) on edge. Not only do these threaten Catholicism, more fragile than it appears in 1936 Donegal, but invoke local pagan gods celebrated in the word Lugh in Lughnasa. Jack’s delight in discovering Michael’s a love-child – bringing good luck in Uganda – doesn’t lighten Kate’s mood either.

Mitchell is no simple martinet though, warming with glints towards her religious nemesis Jack – O’Hanlan increasingly confident and wry as Jack’s health improves – and care towards each of her siblings, and Michael. Like others Kate plays with Michael by patting an invisible child as Vaughan-Lawlor wryly stands nearby. Mitchell projects a blunted regret for her role, emerging only in that fantastic stomping dance – delicately, wildly choreographed by Wayne MacGregor, with music by Hannah Peel and unobtrusive sound from Emma Laxton – that finally reels her in too. However briefly, even Kate exults in that pagan eruption.

Kate can in any case be challenged – and comforted – by Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney), the born wit, practical joker and perhaps ultimate authority, playing low-status because second-oldest and because subverting suits her, as well as voicing desire more explicitly – and wittily – than anyone else: ‘A wild woodbine… or a wild man.’ McSweeney’s riotous Maggie sets up a theatre in herself and like a centrifuge she pulls everyone in. At other times she can stop everything with a verbal slap.

Men seem the great disrupters. Michael’s Welsh father Gerry (Tom Riley) – amiable, feckless, consummately well-meaning – spins by to set not just Chris fluttering but as he well knows, Agnes (Louisa Harland) too; his tenderness towards her is both warm and consolatory, but also playing with small fires. Shy Aggie’s ‘resolute hand’ comes later – like Maggie, she can assert herself. Riley’s infectious bonhomie animates the plausible and warm Gerry who repeatedly proposes marriage to Chris. Just as insouciantly, he suddenly enlists for the Spanish Civil War.

But Harland balances Aggie’s fun against her resoluteness, her protection of “simple” second-youngest Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann) who like her is about to lose her job as glove-knitter as “the industrial revolution finally comes to Donegal”. Though Rose can exclaim “I love you Aggie… more than chocolate biscuits!” Mac Gabhann graphically illustrates though in a downright narration that she too, like Chris, has her epiphany, and refuses to apologise for any of it. The language she uses is like a parting of the September clouds.

Sometimes asides are irresistible. Brid Brennan, who originated the role of Agnes, gaining an IFTA award, is currently playing matriarch Mary next door at the Dorfman in Dixon and Daughters.

Oliver’s Chris is both inward and exultant, knowing and sexy with Gerry, both enjoying the moment and hard-headed enough to know its limits far more than her well-meaning lover. Oliver’s reach towards Michael, fright when he goes missing, and with eyes half-closed conveying ecstasy absorbed in a dance she knows can only last beyond language but not time, is spellbinding.

Vaughan-Lawlor grounds the storytelling in a performance of shadowed joy and – when interacting – a bright reach of childhood, especially with Maggie and Chris. It’s a childhood – Friel doesn’t hesitate to relate through Michael – on the very cusp of change. But it’s the suddenness of characters responding to inexorable shifts, rather than the encroaching world itself, that determines sudden acts. Themes too long suppressed erupt, as if the times give them permission.

Friel’s careful shocks of inconsequence and events build more than a Chekhovian inevitability. They reveal the very imbalances that – at the right moment – a simple visit triggers into life-changing decisions. A flawless cast and creative team gather to a point in Rourke’s often meticulously faithful revival, and disperse. This is the only play this year I’d willingly see again soon. Outstanding.