Birmingham Rep Theatre
Runs: 2h 30m, one interval, till 6 March
Review: Rod Dungate, 23 February 2010

Steeped in humanity, deeply moving.
Q: Why would you want to watch a play set in a memory set in 1930 set in rural Ireland? A: Because Brian Friel, in his beautifully conceived DANCING AT LUGHNASA ensures you want to.

In two seamless acts Friel, in his story of five sisters, living out their hard lives, finding joy in dancing to their unreliable wireless, crafts a play of opposites. It is a celebratory play about the strength of human spirit and it is a tragedy of how the spirit can be broken. It’s a romantic look at the past, but a tough critique of it. It’s about freedom, it’s about bondage. And most of all, it’s a play about yesteryear which is a play for today.

Friel’s language is lyrical and no-nonsense realism, a flavour captured perfectly by the five actors who play the sisters. The bond they create is marvellous to witness, the sisters we see feel as if they’ve lived together for years. This is a crucial and powerful platform from which they play takes flight.

Kate (Penny Layden), the ‘national school-teacher’ sister, cries in anguish of the ‘hairline cracks that begin to appear.’ As we watch, the cracks appear, then widen, then destroy the family, the pain we share with the family is almost too much to bear. Yet, contrarily, we are carried along by the sisters’ indomitable spirits.

With clever use of the grown up son narrator, Gerry, Friel removes the element of ‘what happens next’ and focuses on the ‘what is happening now.’ So we are powerfully enabled to share the sorrow at something from the past, lost, while realising at the same time, that the past was harsh and unjust. The real tragedy is ‘Have we replaced it with anything better?’

Tamara Harvey directs with care and great sensitivity to atmosphere. Yet there is one problem not satisfactorily solved. Gerry, who recounts the story, is adult – the play is a memory of childhood. He is always present, but within the sisters’ world he’s a child; the sisters speak to an invisible child. The effect is jolting, as if an actor is missing or in the wrong place – particularly as ‘adult Gerry’ speaks the lines from somewhere else. Shame. But never mind; it’s still a marvellous evening.

Father Jack: Peter Gowen
Gerry: Daniel Hawksford
Kate: Penny Layden
Maggie: Siobhan McSweeney
Rose: Fiona O’Shaughnessy
Christine: Claire Rafferty
Agnes: Elaine Symons
Michael: Barry Ward

Director: Tamara Harvey
Designer: Colin Richmond
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Sound Designer: Matt McKenzie
Choreographer: Mick Winston
Casting Director Julia Horan
Dialect Coach: Charmian Hoare

2010-02-25 20:17:22

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