The Old Vic revival of Brian Friel's multi award-winning 1990 play Dancing at Lughnasa opened last week (5 March 2009, previews from 26 February), with the South Bank venue continuing to utilise its reconfigured in-the-round space, specially constructed for last year's run of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests (See News, 20 May 2008).
The production marks the stage debut of pop singer Andrea Corr who plays Chris, the youngest of the five Mundy Sisters sharing a cottage in County Donegal in the 1930s. The cast also includes Niamh Cusack, Michelle Fairley, Simone Kirby, Susan Lynch, Finbar Lynch, Peter McDonald and Jo Stone-Fewings as Chris' fickle lover Gerry. It's directed by Anna Mackmin (who helmed the recent West End outing of David Eldridge's Under the Blue Sky), with design by Lez Brotherston.
With a good handful of five stars, Dancing at Lughnasa marks a swift turnaround in the critical fortunes of the Old Vic following the recently mauled Complicit. Most critics hailed the play as Friel's “masterpiece” and appreciated the intimacy of the in-the-round staging. The cast, particularly Stone-Fewings, Fairley and Cusack, were also roundly praised, as was debutant Corr – making a “better than decent stage debut” according to Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney. And director Anna wasn't the only Mackmin receiving praise – her sister Scarlett Mackmin, the play's choreographer, was also lauded for her arrangement of the play's signature scene, the wild, improtu “foot-stamping fling”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “The overlap of Catholic piety and pagan ritual lends the play a thrumming, insidious instability … The five sisters ... are supremely well cast: Michelle Fairley is the only wage-earner, a teacher who tries to keep order; Susan Lynch is the repressed, bespectacled Agnes and Simone Kirby the younger, impetuous Rose, both of them knitters; and Andrea Corr of the folk singing group makes a better than decent stage debut as Chris, Michael’s mother … The conjunction of sacred and secular is a wonderfully sustained poetic thread in a play that delights and moves you to tears in equal measure and marks a total, instant recovery for Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic after the stuttering Complicit.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) - “Is Brian Friel’s masterpiece? After seeing its British premiere at the National in 1990 I thought so, and Anna Mackmin’s revival, with Michelle Fairley giving a terrific performance and Andrea Corr and Niamh Cusack acting their old woolly socks off, leaves me equally moved … If the great Irish dramatist has written anything warmer and wiser, I don’t know it … Friel has translated Chekhov, and you can see why. He has the Russian’s talent, not just for bringing a blend of love, humour, nostalgia, realism and grief to a microcosm that feels macrocosmic, but for seeing people from outside as well as feeling them from inside.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - “After the dismal political thriller that was Complicit … comes this utterly beguiling, deeply moving revival of one of Brian Friel's greatest plays … One moment you are laughing uproariously, the next your eyes are filled with stinging tears. Whatever the mood happens to be, at every moment the play feels startlingly true, tender and fresh … Anna Mackmin's beautifully acted production, staged in the round on a tree-dominated design by Lez Brotherston that cleverly suggests the bleak winter that is to follow the play's heady summer, is marvellously alert to its shifting moods. Mackmin and her company keep turning the mood on a sixpence, and in this play Friel comes closer to Chekhov at his greatest than any other living writer I can think of.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “The play gains much from the Old Vic's new in-the-round formation in which every facial and design detail is visible. Andrea Corr … makes her dramatic debut as Chris and does little more than convey the character's enraptured innocence. But there is sterling support from Michelle Fairley as the inflexible, iron-willed Kate, and Niamh Cusack as the jocular, insubordinate Maggie. Jo Stone-Fewings invests Chris's fly-by-night lover with an utterly plausible straw-hatted gaiety, and Finbar Lynch is both sad and funny as the priestly brother who has returned from Uganda a fervently committed ritualist. You leave convinced that this is one of the octogenarian Friel's finest plays.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) - “This is a great rendition of Mr Friel’s play. The cast includes not only Niamh Cusack, Finbar Lynch and the superb Jo Stone-Fewings ... but also the folk-pop singer Andrea Corr. She holds her own — no mean feat in such a company … One small failure of detail here: all the actresses seem to have shaved legs, whereas Irish spinsters, in my fairly broad experience, tend to be strangers to the ladies’ Philishave … Dancing at Lughnasa is a fine show — and yet it would have been so much better had it been performed up on the Old Vic’s noble stage. Instead it is down in-the-round: confined, cluttered, made untidy by the sight of audience members on the far side of the round holding plastic glasses of wine.”
- by Theo Bosanquet
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