DANCING AT LUGHNASA – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – Go and see this: heartbreak was seldom so exquisite

Photograph by Johan Persson


by Brian Friel

Directed by Josie Rourke

National Theatre/Olivier, London – until 27 May 2023


It’s hard to believe that Dancing At Lughnasa is thirty years old. Although set in a very particular place and time period (Summer 1936, Ballybeg in rural Ireland), Brian Friel’s radiant memory play retains a bewitching freshness, emotional maturity and understanding of humanity -specifically family dynamics- that defy time. Josie Rourke’s breathtaking new production for the National is every bit the equal of the long running original.

Michael Evans (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, in an exquisite study of controlled feeling) looks back with fondness but also clarity at the Mundy sisters, by whom he was raised and of which his mother Chris is one of the five, and their brother Jack (a revelatory Ardal O’Hanlon), returned home to die after decades of missionary work in Africa, in their final summer in the family cottage in the rolling countryside. It looks idyllic but roiling beneath the surface are disappointments, resentments, broken hearts, and the constant threat of abject poverty. Friel based this fictional family on his mothers own which partly explains the extraordinary combination of affection and truth with which he invests his characters.

Not a single word or moment feels extraneous or forced, and under Rourke’s detailed but big-hearted direction, nuances of feeling and waves of understanding are conveyed through the smallest glance or touch between the sisters. It’s delicate, like the financially precarious existence the five women eke out on the sole schoolmistress wages of elder sister Kate, but robustly human, and shot through with rambunctious humour and several devastating moments of raw anguish.

The acting is flawless, so natural that these women barely seem to be acting, simply existing. Siobhán McSweeney is a comic joy as live-wire, irreverent Maggie but watch the wistful way she reacts when she learns a childhood friend, who’d gone off to marriage and affluence in London has returned to the area for a brief visit; the cracks in the wisecracking facade and the yearning for an alternative life that might have been, is utterly heart wrenching, and beautifully underplayed. Equally moving is McSweeney’s Derry Girls cast mate Louisa Harland as resourceful, kind middle sister Agnes, secretly smitten with Chris’s unreliable love interest Gerry (played with appropriate guileless charm by Tom Riley). Harland’s watchfulness and quiet intensity is tantalisingly subtle; it’s a beautiful performance in a company of beautiful performances.

Alison Oliver inhabits Chris’s erotic and romantic thrall to Gerry so completely that it’s almost painful to hear her sister’s descriptions of how she falls apart when he goes absent once again. Bláithín Mac Gabhann finds the sweetness and spirit in the vulnerable Rose, and never overplays her neurodivergence. Justine Mitchell as the older Kate, conflicted between religious rectitude plus the need to be seen to be doing the right thing at all times, and a maelstrom of inner torment and frustration, is giving an absolute masterclass. Watching her go from straight-backed, stiff-limbed disapproval to unwilling but then totally abandoned participation as the five sisters give in to joy and dance to the Irish folk music blaring from their unreliable kitchen wireless is at once very funny and deeply affecting. It’s the finest account of this multi-layered role that I’ve seen.

Dance, both as a physical act and as a metaphor for escape both literal and imaginative, runs through Friel’s gorgeous text like veins through wood. It’s at once swooningly lovely and achingly sad. The choreography is by Wayne McGregor and it feels so organic and specific that one couldn’t imagine these people moving in any other way. Robert Jones’s set, lit with masterful command of shade and colour by Mark Henderson, is simultaneously real, yet not-real, like the memories Michael is conjuring up: it’s ravishing yet gritty, and, on the Olivier’s massive stage, gives a wonderful impression of the Mundy homestead being marooned in a vast open space.

The cruelty, but also the brilliance, of Friel’s text, surely one of the the greatest plays of the latter half of the twentieth century, lies in the speech at the end of the first half where Michael describes what’s going to happen long term to these beloved people. It throws the second half into a rich, dark relief that proves unbearably moving. This is onstage perfection, not so much ‘feel good’ as ‘feel everything’ theatre and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Bewitching.

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