The achingly poignant and tenderly human ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, in my view the masterpiece of Irish playwright Brian Friel, is in excellent form at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory. BOVTS, under the direction of Sue Wilson, play out the story of the five Mundy sisters living in a cramped farmhouse in Ballybeg, as recollected by a young man, Michael, remembering the summer of 1936 in his family home. As they struggle to survive on little money and limited resources, the sisters take comfort from their obvious love for each other and their cherished but unreliable wireless set. To make matters worse, their Uncle Jack, a priest in the town, has returned from missionary work in Uganda a shadow of his former self, having forgotten half of his vocabulary and abandoning much of his Catholicism in the process. As Michael recalls his childhood, certain images and sounds spring forth most violently: the appearance of his absent father, Gerry Evans; the Celtic festival of La Lughnasa, with its raging fires and wild pagan rites; and the effect of the radio, turning his mother and aunts into shrieking, wild, and animalistic beings, almost seeming possessed in the sheer transformative power of its music.
Wilson directs with a fluidity and dynamism that suits this memory play superbly. The staging is quite remarkable, especially on such a detailed and atmospheric set design (thanks to Sarah Mills), which could compare easily with most productions playing in the West End. Mentions too, for Mark Noble’s evocative lighting and Jen Sherlock’s rousing Irish music that pulses throughout the theatre. However, in an evening that largely captures Friel’s balance of melodic beauty and agonizing sorrow, some crucial moments are skated over too readily and all too often pauses and silences dispensed with. Saying that, there isn’t a weak link in the cast, although one or two performances could do with tweaking in regards to pitching and subtlety. An engaging Gavin Swift acts as an affable narrator, cleverly eschewing sentimentality; Cate Cammack impresses as the joker of the family, disguising the simmering pain beneath the apron; a crisply spoken Mark Donald smarms his way back into the household (and brings a lightness of touch) as the effortlessly charming salesman Gerry, although I missed the character’s pathos; Jennifer Greenwood’s Kate is brilliantly uptight and self-righteous, occasionally letting her mask slip in some of the evening’s most moving exchanges; but perhaps best of all is Leigh Quinn’s simple and damaged younger sister, Rose, revealing a childlike innocence and dangerous vulnerability, her echoing howls of frustration piercing the air when ever she is challenged.
All in all, a triumphant if slightly flawed evening, passionate and harrowing, shot through with glimpses of hope and gentle humour. Friel’s view of De Valera’s new Ireland comes into sharp focus in ‘Dancing…’ but without suffocating the audience with political or social commentary. Instead, his simple family drama comes out fighting as a heavyweight of the theatrical world because of its huge emotional impact. Wilson’s intimate, energetic, and spirited incarnation is well worth seeing and promises, like Michael’s childhood, to linger long in the memory.
Playing until the 23rd June at the Tobacco Factory in Southville, Bristol.