Dancing at Lughnasa, ImpAct Theatre, Wimborne Tivoli and touring

THE late Brian Friel has been compared to many of the 20th century’s great playwrights, including Becket and Pinter, but the most accurate comparison, surely, is with Chekhov, and none of his plays more merit the comparison than Dancing At Lughnasa.

Like Chekhov, Friel, a prolific writer who died in 2015, had great humanity and a wry wit, which enabled him to show the depth and inner lives of his characters, with an objectivity which is never unkind. However flawed, we recognise and understand the concerns, fears, passions and hopes of the people of Ballybeg, the fictional Donegal village where so many of his plays are set.

Dancing At Lughnasa, Friel’s masterpiece, is said to be based loosely on the life of his mother and aunts – it is seen through the eyes of the now elderly Michael, the son of Chrissie and a passing travelling salesman, who drifts mysteriously in and out of his childhood.

The action takes place late in the summer of 1936, over the ancient harvest festivities of Lughnasa, in the house and garden of the Mundy family – sisters Kate (Francesca Folen), Maggie (Joanne Owen), Chrissie (Rhiannon Horne), Agnes (Joanne Dunbar) and Rose (Marie Bushell).

Their older brother, Father Jack, a longtime Catholic missionary to a leper colony in Uganda, is home and in need of patient care – but his return is not the cause for celebration anticipated by the sisters, who have saved every spare penny for years to support his mission.

In many ways, Father Jack is more of a stranger to this remote and deeply traditional village than the Welsh interloper, Gerry Evans. Young Michael is an innocent bystander in the disparate but interlinked events that unfold in the September sun.

From his viewpoint some 40 years on, the older Michael (Lee Tilson) observes and comments, shedding some light on the intervening years, but audiences are left to draw their own conclusions about the lives of the remaining sisters when the curtain falls – just as we are at the end of Uncle Vanya or Three Sisters.

The mood moves from energetic to elegaic, from tranquil to tragic – the death of Rose’s beloved white cockerel is emblematic of blighted hopes unravelling and the  randomness of life.

Director Patricia Richardson and her ImpAct Theatre cast bring the sisters vividly to life in this brilliant touring production. Each sister is strongly characterised – the strong eldest, Kate, struggling to maintain social and religious conformities, exuberant Maggie, always looking for a Wild Woodbine and a chance to dance, thoughtful Chrissie, intelligent and independent Aggie, whose creative spirit is ruthlessly channelled into the grey Donegal wool socks she knits all day long, and fragile Rose.

The two men are wonderfully contrasted, both living in imaginary worlds – beautifully evoked by Stuart Glossop as Father Jack, who has never really left Africa, and dreamer Stewart Barlow who always believes his own promises, whether it is a bike for Michael or heroism in the Spanish Civil War.

Poignant, lyrical and exquisitely paced, ImpAct’s Dancing At Lughnasa is as good a production of this great play as you will ever see. There are two more performances at The Hub in Verwood on Friday 17th and the Plaza in Romsey on Sunday 19th March.

Pictured: Francesca Folen as Kate, Joanne Dunbar as Agnes, Marie Bushell as Rose, and Rhiannon Horne and Stuart Barlow as Chrissie and Gerry; photographs by Matthew Ellison.


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