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Watermill - Dancing at Lughnasa

31st July to 7th September 2002.

This is the Newbury Weekly News review.

As warm as Irish whiskey

'DANCING AT LUGHNASA', at The Watermill, from Wednesday, July 31 to Saturday, September 7

The August harvest is a perfect time for the Watermill to stage 'Dancing at Lughnasa'. Set in Ballybeg, Donegal, against the pagan ritual of an offering of the first-cut corn to the god Lugh and young people up to shenanigans in the hills, the play is as warming as Irish whiskey and considered one of Brian Friel's finest.

Based upon Friel's own experiences as a boy, it's a snapshot of the summer of 1936, pieced together from the childhood memories of Michael (Daniel Coonan) who, as an adult, affectionately narrates his recollections of that fleeting period of rime, before the world changed.

Nurtured in a household of women, five sisters - his unmarried mother (Aoife McMahon) and spinster aunts (Mary Conlon, Caroline Lennon, Dido Miles and Patricia Gannon) - he witnesses the effect of the return 'to die' of uncle Jack (Peter Dineen), gone native after 25 years as an African missionary, and two visits by his charming, but irresponsible father, Gerry (Hywel Morgan).

It's a close-knit family, the different temperaments of each sister providing an emotional support to the whole. A safe, secure, home, it seems, but the boy is innocent to the fragility of their existence, so close to the breadline, but we observe the widening cracks, sense the undercurrents and secrets.

'Dancing at Lughnasa' is about how we remember the people we love and in it Friel plays with memories. Is the memory accurate or mere perception gained through assembling fragments and making a whole of what we wish to see?

The intimacy of the Watermill space is perfect for the confines of the sisters' world, set within a rural kitchen, the temperamental radio their magical, musical escape. You are drawn into their confidences. In a fine piece of ensemble acting, the interplay between the characters is superb, the pace of the dialogue cracking - well, we are talking Irish here - and the constant wit, the sense of fun even in adversity, delivered with perfect timing.

Yes, you remember the gentle humour in Jonathan Munby's production, as it stirs the emotions, and even makes you laugh out loud. "Today lipstick, tomorrow the gin bottle..."

Given that, and the closeness you feel to the characters, it's difficult to come to terms with their ultimate fate. Yet, you do leave the theatre with a smile on your face.


This is the Newbury Theatre view.

I've just spent a week in Ireland, including Donegal where Brian Friel's play is set in 1936. The Donegal towns of 2002 remind me of Newbury about 25 years ago, so to visualise Ballybeg in 1936 you have to turn the clock back an age.

The story of the five sisters whose lives are torn apart over the course of a summer is poignant and sad, yet humorous. They form a very believable family: Kate (Mary Conlon) is the serious school marm, allowing herself to relax slightly in intense, spontaneous dancing; Maggie (Caroline Lennon) is a bouncy extrovert; Aggie (Dido Miles) is more intense and secret, but unable to hide her feelings for the feckless Jack Evans; Chris (Aoife McMahon) is youthful and enthusiastic, still holding a torch for Jack; and Rose... this was an outstanding portrayal by Patricia Gannon of poor vulnerable Rose, not too bright, but fiercely protected by her sisters.

Daniel Coonan was Chris's son Michael and the narrator, and Hywel Morgan as Gerry convincingly transformed from the diffident, confused priest returning from Africa in disgrace into a man at ease with himself while refusing to go along with the sisters' attempts to make him conform. Peter Dineen played the smooth talking Welshman Jack, although surprisingly with an English accent. The set was basic, as you'd expect, but the background of wheat looked too neat and weed-free (wot, no poppies?).

I've seen several productions of this play, as well as the film, and I always find it very moving and atmospheric. Director Jonathan Munby, perhaps constrained by the Watermill's size, gave us a thoughtful, intimate version of the play that was delightful and touching.