In the early 1990s Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves up to our eyeballs in matters too dull to repeat here but which meant that we spent about four years without going to the theatre. At all. Unimaginable! As a result of that fallow period, we never saw Dancing at Lughnasa first time round; or indeed, any Brian Friel play. So it was a good opportunity to put that right with the choice of this Olivier and Tony award winning play as part of this year’s Made In Northampton season.
I was expecting something gentle, lyrical, reflective and Irish. Well two out of four isn’t bad. I wouldn’t call it a gentle play by any means – its depiction of poverty, dementia and unfulfilled lives is hard hitting, albeit punched with a soft glove. Neither would I think of it as lyrical – the language of the Mundy sisters is more attuned to the mundanity of getting batteries for the radio, the drudgery of work and maintaining the household than any pretence to a romantic notion of the simple “good old days”. Reflective, however, it certainly is. The whole structure of the play is that Michael, the grown-up son of Christina, looks back on his childhood and the characters who inhabited it, to tell to a present-day audience the story of the sisters. Because he tells us how the story ends, this gives rise to a considerable sense of dramatic irony, especially in the second act. And finally, Irish; it goes without saying really, and indeed many of the accents I heard around the theatre and bar during the interval were from the Emerald Isle.
Contrasting and interspersed with the drudgery and general tedium of remote village life with no money, comes the concept of dancing, a simple form of self-expression, which the sisters turn to in order to bring some light into their lives. It may be the childish dancing of Rose, the razzmatazz dancing of Maggie, or The Full Riverdance that the sisters do as a group when the infectious joy of the music from the wireless is too much to ignore. Dancing is associated with negative aspects too – Gerry, the waster boyfriend of Christina, and father of Michael, loves to dance, and not to do much else; and the ritualised dancing of the Ugandan tribe where Father Jack had gone as a missionary in part caused his downfall.
Technically, as seems always to be the case with these Made in Northampton shows, it’s a wonderful production. Naomi Dawson’s fantastic set, which gives a huge impression of depth – Row A has been removed from the stalls for this production – has skeleton roofing, tired furniture, a black horizon and real grass. Jon Nicholls’ ethereally eerie background music gets interrupted with a jolt by the harsh sound effects of real life. Lee Curran’s lighting subtly draws your attention to the important scenes and contrasts the sunlight of the garden with the dinginess of the house. It’s all masterminded by the director Richard Beecham who has created a terrific ensemble spirit within the cast and allowed Brian Friel’s text to do the talking in a sensitive, gimmick-free staging.
If I have a criticism of the play, it would be that – basically – not a lot happens. And some of what does happen, you don’t actually see or experience, you just get told about it. But your attention is always held, and the lack of action certainly doesn’t lead to boredom. It makes you think hard about the wider relationships of the characters, for example, what happened to them in the future, and what was the Priestleyesque “dangerous corner” when something went wrong; Mrs C and I spent the rest of the evening trying to piece in the gaps of the play for ourselves – which is always a satisfying process.
There are some terrific performances. Kate, the schoolmistress head of the household, is played with great understanding and insight by Michele Moran. Kate is the authoritarian, the breadwinner, and frequently the bully; at other times she can lose her inhibitions just as much as her less responsible sisters. Michele Moran absolutely gets that mixture of kindness and harshness, and it’s a superb performance. She completely reminded me of my old headmistress. I shuddered at the thought.
Zoe Rainey is splendid as Christina, downtrodden when part of the sisterly group, but blossoming when alone, beguiled by Gerry, even though she knows he’s only spinning his stories. Her gradual descent from placid to jealous is beautifully realised when she observes Gerry interacting with the other sisters, particularly the well meaning Agnes, another super performance by Grainne Keenan; there’s obviously some history there between the characters, but you have to piece it together yourself.
We both really enjoyed the performance of Caroline Lennon as Maggie, warm-hearted, cheeky, flawed, and always doing her best for the group as a whole. Her facial expressions at others’ conversations and references give you gradual clues to gather together and fill in the gaps about Maggie’s past; a subtle and beautiful performance. I also thought Colm Gormley, as the narrator Michael, did a great job of bringing us into his confidence, reminiscing about the past with warmth but not sentiment, vocally interacting with his aunts as they were playing with him, and coming to terms with aspects of his own life as a result of reliving these memories.
Sarah Corbett expressed Rose’s simple nature with a wide-eyed wonderment and an innocently child-like voice to boot; Christopher Saul’s Jack was a superb study of someone in the first stages of dementia, still largely able to survive independently but who needs someone else to join the dots for them, and Milo Twomey made a roguish Gerry, all charm and empty promises, although we did think that his Welsh accent occasionally went a bit Home Counties.
But it’s a very engrossing and thought-provoking play, given a loving treatment by the cast and production team. Definitely recommended.