Brian Friel's acclaimed play, first seen in 1990, is a curious piece. Set in Ireland in 1936, and framed by a flashback narrative from the then seven-year-old boy as a grown-up, it's firmly fixed in a definite time and place. And while theoretically its themes of family, secrets and the decline of a rural idyll should carry beyond the Irish borders, much of the idiom and style of the play is rooted unequivocally in its location and period.
This makes it difficult for the cast of eight to bring much in the way of contemporary resonance to the piece, and leaves it struggling to be anything more than an anachronistic, rather dated theatrical curiosity.
Under Richard Beecham's direction, the rich language and imagery of Friel's script is certainly to the fore, aided by some native casting and an evocative – if surprisingly restrictive – naturalistic set by Naomi Dawson.
The story of five sisters sharing a home in a remote village has shades of Chekhov about it, and such action as there is amounts to some Irish jigging and lots of knitting. The pace is deliberately slow, the unfolding sadness measured and contained – which is fine, except that the audience has to work hard to engage or get caught up in any real notion of drama.
The actors are consistently strong, with an especially touching performance from Zoe Rainey as Christina, the sister who is mother to the young boy. Jon Nicholls's subtle but effective music and Lee Curran's gentle lighting also add to the melancholia, and there's a palpable, rather suffocating, sense of atmosphere.
The production is handsome and elegantly played, but it's an odd choice of play and may prove a tough sell to Northampton audiences.