By Brian Friel
Directed by Krista Jackson
At the Royal George. Till October 15, 2007

Fiona Byrne (Kate) front; back (L-R): Claire Jullien (Agnes), Sarena Parmar (Christina), and Tara Rosling (Maggie) in “Dancing at Lughnasa” (photo: David Cooper)

The important things in Friel’s memory play about five repressed Mundy sisters, their brother, and the narrator, Michael, who happens to be the son of the youngest sister are a radio, atmosphere, a sense of unfulfillment, and dance. Friel is, perhaps, the most Chekhovian of modern Irish playwrights, and, as in Chekhov, his atmosphere and subtext can say more than his dialogue. But atmosphere is sorely lacking in Krista Jackson’s blighted production. In what must be the worst set design in her distinguished career, Sue LePage gives no palpable sense of Donegal, near the village of Ballybeg. Her design is tacky and in one of the ugliest shades of olive verging on grey: a badly wrinkled backcloth outline of what are meant to be a hillside or, perhaps, rolling fields, with two large ill-shaped columns to mask the wings; and the interior of a kitchen forced, as it were, to one side. The components seem lumpy, ungainly, and far from poetic. They do not evoke a tender, wistful atmosphere; they stifle it. The erratic radio (nicknamed Marconi) is present, either filling the air with 30s dance music (the setting is early August 1936, an important detail for a period preceding world disorder) or sputtering into frustrating silence. But dance, where the sisters allow their bodies to show both gaiety and despair, makes itself felt only in one uninhibited sequence in the small kitchen, where the sisters (especially the customarily earnest Kate and the tart-tongued Maggie) cut loose in a fashion suited to celebrating the festival of Lugh, pagan god of harvests. There is another dance sequence, involving the youngest sister, Christina, and her suitor, handsome Welsh travelling salesman, Gerry Evans, who fathers their son, Michael, the narrator, who relives moments of the past, enacting himself as a child. But Kristopher Bowman is miscast as this dreamy character, for he doesn’t sound Welsh and is clunky in dance and, therefore, quite unable to unite body to soul. Ironically, it is Christina who outshines him in dance.

Patrick Galligan does well as Michael, but because of the small size of the Royal George playing area and the squashed nature of the set, he is often forced offstage instead of being allowed to observe quietly from the sidelines as his sisters and Father Jack (his troubled uncle who has returned after a quarter century’s missionary work in an African leper colony) play out their inner and outer frustrations about economic and sexual deprivation. The Mundy sisters live virtually as if cloistered from men, politics, and sex. As in Chekhov, the characters are comic but sad, sometimes simultaneously, and the women in the cast are fine (apart from some inconsistency in accent): Sarena Parmar has a sweet face and manner as Christina, but her vocal range is small and much of her performance seems to be on one note, though an affecting one; Tara Rosling stamps Maggie, the household cigarette-puffing drudge, as the most inwardly uninhibited, but with a gently witty, imaginative side when she poses riddles for young Michael; Claire Jullien is quiet, archly conservative, self-mortifying Agnes, occupied with her knitting and condemning anything even vaguely “pagan”; Diana Donnelly earns sympathy as Rose, simple minded but proud of her legs; and Fiona Byrne is splendid as schoolteacher Kate who bursts free magnificently from her pent-up puritanism. Alas, the big hole in the acting (apart from Bowman’s awkward Gerry) is caused by Peter Millard as Father Jack—which happens to be the best written role, tinged with drama and with mystery in some of its dark corners. Jack has lost much of his personal identity and memory, but in Millard’s colourless performance, he has also lost his Irish accent and any sense of dreamy unfulfillment.


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