For one night only, York Theatre Royal was blessed with the presence of Alistair Whatley’s touring production, Dancing at Lughnasa. Presenting a fresh interpretation of Brian Friel’s bittersweet tale of 1930s Ireland, Lughnasa was one of the most enjoyable shows I have seen for quite a while.
Friel’s complex memory play explores Irish identity through the story of five sisters, intricately weaving together the clash of cultures and language; the tensions between paganism and Christianity; and the implications of modernity for traditional societies. We share the pain of the sisters as industrialisation destroys livelihoods and breaks their tight bonds. We feel Father Jack’s confusion as he grapples with his native language, now unfamiliar after so many years abroad, and are swept along with Friel’s comments on the erosion of traditions and languages.
Daragh O’Malley is particularly powerful as the eccentric missionary-gone-native Father Jack, while the quintet of sisters are well cast, bringing the theatre to life with their ecstatic dancing scenes. In moments of greater calm the acting becomes a little stale and forced, although this did serve to heighten the wild joy brought to the household by the wireless and traditions of Irish dancing. The real weakness, however, was apparent in the rambling reminiscences of Michael, the story’s love-child narrator. While clever use of an adult narrator to give voice to the imaginary boy worked well, Whatley’s indistinct mumblings soon became hard to follow when required to relate at length the twists and turns of life beyond the summer of 1936.
The elaborate set made use of an impressive amount of grass and wooden fences around the peripheries of a quaint farmhouse kitchen tableau, allowing easy transition between the inside and outside spaces. What was less impressive was the constant discomfort from the lingering stage smoke, an overused effect which quickly exhausted its nostalgia-inducing intentions.
Still, Whatley’s Dancing at Lughnasa is a charming show. Part of the Takeover Festival, which sees York Theatre Royal claimed by an under 26 year old management and production team, this one night show stood out as the highlight of the programme so far. The sturdy performance shines with the sheer sense of ecstatic joy of the dancing sisters which reverberates throughout the theatre, reaching out and infecting every member of the audience. The Original Theatre Company deftly conjures a vivid image which defined the essence of Friel’s play; that of Christina cavorting in a surplice to the crackle of the wireless’s dance music.
Takeover Festival is currently taking place at York Theatre Royal, for more events, see the website here.