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Dancing at Lughnasa

PHOTO: (c) Manuel Harlan

Birmingham Rep have done justice to Brian Friel’s play about family conflict in pre-war rural Ireland, as our correspondent notes. Paula Elenor gives us her review.....

The setting is Eire’s remote Donegal. The time is August 1936 and the usually devout Roman Catholic locals are celebrating the pagan harvest festival of Lugh – Lughnasa.

The ramshackle kitchen- the heart of the Mundy family in the Donegal countryside, miles from the nearest town - is beautifully created on stage. However, although the action is fixed very precisely in time and place, Friel creates a powerful sense of the fluidity of time - past and future - as well as a sense of geographical distances.

The family home is the place which men leave and return to – occasionally. It represents family bonds and duties, and we know that these ties can be the doing or undoing of us all.

The narrator (an intelligent and nuanced performance by Barry Ward) is the lynch-pin of the play. The play’s lyrical sense of time passing, lost loves and opportunities, is achieved though the viewpoint of Michael as an adult, reminiscing and reflecting on his childhood in the bustling household of women; his mother and a gaggle of aunts.

Universal themes resonate with us all, but it is in the depiction of the specificities of Irish life and culture that Friel’s genius lies.

Five unmarried sisters, past their prime, live together, reflecting on how time and love has passed them by. Their relationship, convincing to anyone with any knowledge of large families, are subtly and humorously realised. Each sister is doing her best to cope with her own disappointments, distracted by the music on the wireless and her own daydreams. What a fantastic group of women (and actresses) they were!

Eldest sister, Kate, may have annoyed all with her self-righteous pontificating, but the heavy burden of responsibility for the family came clearly through in the writing and Penny Layden’s performance. All the sisters were well realised, but the audience really warmed to Siobhan McSweeney as Maggie. The wag of the family, her high spirits and ironic asides barely contained a growing sense of frustration.

I enjoyed the play and this production of it enormously. The subtle characterisation of the sisters, especially in their response to the long-awaited return of the idealised elder brother, Father Jack, from his mission in Uganda opened up many an insight into family and cultural identity, and the historical effects of the Irish Diaspora.

Dancing at Lughnasa continues at Birmingham Rep until March 6th. For further information visit or phone 0121 236-4455



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