Dance with all the right steps

Dancing at Lughnasa

Birmingham Rep

****

THE Rep stage was turned into a corner of Donegal, complete with a rolling hill for this excellent production of Brian Friel's best known play which is based loosely on his mother and aunts.

The story, set in 1936, is told through the eyes of Michael, a child born out of wedlock – hardly the done thing in rural Ireland now let alone then – who was seven at the time the play is set.

Michael, (Barry Ward), now an adult, relates the tale of that summer partly from his memory partly in scenes acted out in the house he shared with his mother, Christina Mundy (Claire Rafferty) and her four sisters Kate (Penny Layden), Maggie (Siobhan McSweeney), Rose (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) and Agnes (Elaine Symons).

There is also their brother, Father Jack (Peter Gowen – who played Michael in a production five years ago incidentally) who has returned after 25 years as a missionary in a leper colony in Uganda suffering from malaria.

It is a story of grinding poverty in rural Ireland with Agnes and the sweet but less than intellectually gifted Rose scraping a living knitting gloves. Rose has managed to save enough money to buy a bottle of milk and a packet of chocolate biscuits to go out with a boy while a meal for eight comes down to a homemade loaf and three eggs.

Yet this is no sorry tale of the poor fighting against the odds. It is about five women who have fun and hope. Christina hopes that Michael's father's infrequent visits will become more permanent while the boy's father, Gerry Evans (Daniel Hawksford) hopes that his latest new job will work out and hopes to bring a new bike for Michael the next time he calls.

All the sisters hope to find men and all find happiness in Marconi, the battery powered, temperamental radio which works – or doesn't – in the corner to bring popular music and Irish dance music to their home.

 GREAT EVENTS

It is not a play about great events or happenings. True, Gerry goes off to join the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War but it has no more impact on the Mundy family that had he popped down to the shop for a new battery for the radio – probably less.

We discover Father Jack had gone native in Uganda with the call of Rome now somewhat less strong than the call of the wild.

We learn about the women individually. Maggie is the fun loving one, always ready with a laugh and a joke or as the peacemaker at the first hint of tension. Yet we also see her quiet contemplation when she hears of her best friend's successful life as for a while the clown's mask fades.

Of Rose who believes Danny Bradley loves her while everyone else, even the audience, knows Danny is aiming to exploit a pretty country girl a few eggs short of a dozen.

Agnes seems infatuated with Gerry and is closest to Rose and after the Danny incident and the opening of a new knitwear factory which puts all the home workers out of business he future is bleak while the eldest sister.

In rehearsal: left to right are Claire Rafferty, Siobhan McSweeney, Elaine Symons and Fiona O'Shaughnessy. Picture:  Manuel Harlan

 Kate, who seems to have a crush on a local shopkeeper, and takes on the mother role. She is the only one with a full time job, as a school teacher where her reputation is not exactly as life and soul of the party - her nickname is The Gander. She is a devout Catholic trying to bring her school marm ways to her four sisters less committed to the faith and a brother who is a priest who has found another calling.

Strangely the one we find out least about is Michael, the narrator, who tells us about everyone else but leaves us guessing about himself.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

There are no murders, strange deaths, robberies or momentous events, just a simple story of ordinary people with ordinary hopes and dreams, well told and wonderfully acted whether it was Maggie's raucous dancing, Kate's silent tears, Rose's innocence, Christina's dreams or Agnes's secret longings.

Gerry is a likeable, unreliable dreamer, Father Jack a priest who has found a new religion while Michael is . . . and we never did find that out.

Full marks too to Tamara Harvey the director, Colin Richmond for the set design and James Farncombe for clever lighting design. If you see the play, and it is well worthwhile, notice how characters walk into sunlight as they leave the house – even though there are no walls. To 6-03-10 

Roger Clarke 

Home  Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre