20 April 2023
DANCING AT LUGHNASA (National Theatre, Olivier) Review

Having seen “Translations” twice with two different casts, as well as “Faith Healer” also twice with two different casts, I’ve learned that, with Friel, the same play can be made wonderfully accessible or somewhat muddled with the strength of direction and casting.  I wasn’t sure what to expect (or how to pronounce the name properly, if I’m honest), but it turned out to be one of the best productions I’d seen in a while.

The plot is deceptively simple:  a young man recalls his childhood, being brought up by his mum and her four sisters.  Yet the story is nuanced, multilayered, funny, sad, and absolutely captivating.

Josie Rourke does a wonderful job of directing here.  There is nothing heavy-handed, no one steals the show, the pace is slow enough to let the actors deliver the text without rushing through it, but not so slow as to be boring.  It almost felt like I was invited to a family dinner and was just watching them do their own thing.

Acting-wise, I was thoroughly impressed by Siobhán McSweeney.  I am not a fan of hers from what I’d seen on the telly:  she is a bit much for my liking.  But here, even though her character is meant to be full of life and carefree, she never goes into panto mode.  Instead, she gives her Maggie a kind of sadness that holds the play together.  Justine Mitchell (whose acting I very much enjoyed in Rutherford & Son a few years back) plays Kate, the stern oldest sister.  She too gives her character a lot of subtlety and range.  In fact, no sister is one-dimensional:  Alison Oliver, Louisa Harland, and Bláithín Mac Gabhann each play their respective sisters in a way that gives them authenticity and makes the audience invest into wanting things to come to a happy ending for all of them.

Ardal O’Hanlon plays the sisters’ uncle who comes home after decades of being a missionary in Africa.  Again, it would be so easy to turn this bumbling man into a joke, but O’Hanlon’s gives him sympathy and humanity.  Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as the narrator fades in and out of the story in a nicely understated way.  He is both always and never addressed directly as a child, which is interesting to watch.

Robert Jones’ set is a beautiful representation of a harvest.  People were coming up to the stage before the show and during intermission to marvel at the hanging strands.

This play is a complex story about what can objectively be described as grim living, but how having a family can make it all a lot more bearable, at least for a while anyway.  Friel’s text is full of insights into human relationships, but they are slipped into is in a way that lets you enjoy the play in the moment and think about them later.

A truly fantastic production all around.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £12.

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