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Dancing at Lughnasa (Colchester, Mercury Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Looking back from a detached perspective is a device used by Brian Friel in several of his plays. The past depicted in Dancing at Lughnasa is quite remote in both time and place. Grown-up (and grown-away) Michael (Ian Kirkby) shows us a remote farmhouse in 1930s Donegal, inhabited by five sister and the illegitimate son of one of them. Their missionary brother has also been “retired” to join their household.

It’s for the most part a play about women: their hopes, their dreams, their harsh realities – and how they cope (or can't) with all these. Central to the story is Christina, the unmarried mother who well understands the stigma this has brought upon her family (and, by inference, might yet damage her son’s future), but who also can absorb such hurt and transmute them into the pleasure of the moment.

Nadia Morgan is very good in the part; you believe in her utterly as she accepts whatever transitory fun her footloose and feckless lover Gerry (Tomos James) can offer just as easily as the hardships of her everyday existence. Contrasting in every way is Kelly Williams as Kate, the school-teacher sister whose professional prospects are about to be blighted just as surely as her social ones have been. It’s a fine study of a recognisable if unlovable woman.

Rose is the not-quite-all-there sister, vulnerable as well as cared for. Clare Humphrey makes her edgily dangerous for all that. The two other sisters are Michelle Butt as Maggie, the joker in the family, and Kristin Hutchinson as Agnes, already on hr downwards spiral. Ignatius Anthony is moving as Father Jack, the priest who – to the consternation of both his ecclesiastical and political superiors – has “gone native”.

Designer Sara Perks has come up with a marvellous set, where the corn stooks surrounding the house and its yard blend imperceptively into the audience itself. It echoes the blend of symbolism and realism in Friel’s script, underlined by Sue Lefton’s production. It may take a little while for non-Irish ears to tune themselves into the language and the accents, but the result is well worth the effort.


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