Theatre review: Dancing at Lughnasa, Gaiety Theatre

****

The image of a child’s kite, bereft of a wind that might carry it, is one of the key images in the late Brian Friel’s great play.

All of the characters are like kites: delicate lives brimming with vitality and potential, but no less at the mercy of whatever winds might come their way.

Set in the fictional Donegal village of Ballybeg, in 1936, the play relays a pivotal month of change in the household of the Mundy family — five spirited and sprightly sisters — who are caught in the crosswinds of history and social change.

Youngest sister, Vanessa Emme, is the single mother of a young boy; the sisters famed missionary brother, Jack, has returned from Africa with his mind unstable and his faith altered; and — against a backdrop of emigration and industrial change — the sisters’ modest livelihoods come under threat.

Despite its emphasis on the liberating power of music, dance, and community, and despite the play being one of the great international success stories of Irish theatre — the original, 1990 production was the toast of Broadway — Friel’s most remarkable feat in Lughnasa is the tone of tremendous melancholy that he weaves through it all.

It’s never a maudlin or depressing sadness but, rather, a strange and bittersweet meditation on time’s relentless passing and its indifference to the lives that it passes through.

Annabelle Comyn’s new production does well to capture all of the play’s poignancy.

In this, she is very ably assisted by core performances from Catherine McCormack as eldest sister, Kate; the stern but vulnerable head of the household; and Cara Kelly as Maggie, the mischievous and witty lieutenant, doing her best to keep the family together through fun and frolics.

It is the turn of Catherine Cusack, as the enigmatic, unfairly doomed sister, Agnes, that quietly steals the show, however.


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