In 1936 in the remote village of Ballybeg in Donegal, Ireland, the five Mundy sisters - along with Michael, the illegitimate seven-year-old son of youngest sister Chris, and Jack, the sisters' missionary elder brother - are just managing to eke out a living.
The play is narrated by an adult Michael (Daniel Coonan), who recalls the events of that long hot summer, during the pagan festival of Lughnasa. Coonan's is an affectionate and witty study of Michael's family and childhood, his narration evoking the subtle and complex pattern of the women's housebound lives, from which there's only one escape. The radio. Or, as he describes it: "sheer magic...the kitchen throbbing with the beat of Irish music beamed from Dublin...dancing with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell".
But the spell is broken, the Mundys' safe and quiet existence shattered by a series of events, starting with the arrival of Michael's father (Hywel Morgan), that test the household's emotional fragility. Even the return of lapsed brother Jack (an excellent Peter Dineen) from Africa, where he has been saving Catholic souls for 25 years, has a taint of scandal about it. His actions blur the division between pagan and Christian ritual, a recurring theme.
By its very familial nature, Dancing at Lughnasa is a piece geared towards the highest standards of ensemble acting, and it gets just that in Jonathan Munby's production here. In addition to those cast members already mentioned, Patricia Gannon's Rose impresses with her mix of innocence and dependency, while Caroline Lennon's Maggie injects humour in stark - and welcome - contrast to Mary Conlan's pious but still vulnerable Kate.
Along with these detailed performances, Mike Britton's household set and Oliver Fenwick's focused lighting consistently succeed in conveying the almost-smothering sense of containment that is the world of the Mundy sisters.
Handled with depth and great warmth, this Dancing at Lughnasa is another outstanding production from the Watermill team.
- David Stockton (reviewed at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury)