Photo: Johan Persson

A few years ago we went to check out the revival of Brian Friel’s play Translations at the Olivier stage at the National Theatre, describing it as having “a real beauty in the text and genuine warmth and humour in its delivery”. We were hoping for much the same from the Josie Rourke’s revival of Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, which has previously won both the Olivier Award and the Tony Award for Best Play. Boasting an impressive cast, starring Father Ted’s Ardal O’Hanlon and Derry Girls’ Siobhan McSweeney, our expectations going into this show were very high.

Thankfully Dancing at Lughnasa really succeeds on multiple levels. It’s told as a memory, with the now-adult Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) recounting a childhood summer spent with his mother Chris (Alison Over) and his aunts, in the fictional village of Ballybeg in rural Donegal. The year is 1936 and the five unmarried sisters bicker, joke, knit, dance to music playing on their new radio, and bake soda bread. The play is enjoyable as a simple family drama: the text is rich and witty, and there are a handful of moments of dramatic tension, including occasional visits from Michael’s mostly-absent father Gerry (Tom Riley).

It also succeeds at capturing a specific moment in time. We see and feel the trappings of their circumstances; how these women’s lives have been shaped and influenced by the men in them, no matter how periphery these figures may be. As old-fashioned and conservative as everything seems, it plays out against a backdrop of looming change; the industrial revolution is closing in even on these small rural towns, with declining demand for hand-knitted goods as workers are replaced by machines; the Spanish civil war is alluded to; there’s a pervading feeling that life as they know it is about to fundamentally, and permanently, change.

Dancing at Lughnasa also features some wonderful acting. Ardal O’Hanlan impresses as distant brother Jack, who has just returned from  many years’ missionary work in Africa, with impassioned – if slightly clumsy – speeches about his time there; Siobhan McSweeney entertains with a wonderfully natural humour, playing the role of mediator when tensions rise between the sisters; there’s a palpable chemistry between all the siblings – we really believed and invested in this family.

We thoroughly enjoyed our evening with Dancing at Lughnasa. It’s a very particular type of play – slow moving, beautiful, and witty, without much in the way of action – and that might not appeal to everyone. We had a great time, though – the text is wonderful and so is the acting. Highly recommended.

GAY TIMES gives Dancing at Lughnasa – 4/5

More information can be found here.