Review by Daz Gale
How do you fill the shoes of a show that swept the Olivier awards and announced a huge West End transfer? That’s the unenviable task of Dancing at Lughnasa who has to follow in the footsteps of Standing At The Sky’s Edge at National Theatre. With a consistently impressive slate in 2023 so far, would the latest production at the Olivier Theatre have me dancing with joy or leave me waltzing away disappointed?
Written in 1990, Dancing At Lughnasa tells the story of the summer of 1936 in the fictional town of Ballybeg. As the five Mundy sisters celebrate the festival of Lughnasa, they might not have much to celebrate with the looming threat of their joy being taken away and the heart being ripped out of their home.
The first thing you notice when you step foot inside the Olivier Theatre is the wondrous set design. The Mundys home is the centrepiece of a sprawling background which seems to go on forever. Brilliantly designed by Robert Jones, it continues the trend of grand and impressive sets in this theatre over the last year, allowing a true sense of scope as characters appear at the top of the set and gradually make their way down to the house.
Josie Rourkes expert direction makes full use of this grand space, with characters utilising every inch of the vast space, maximised by Wayne McGregors choreography interspersing dialogue with a bit of dancing. It is these dance scenes which exudes pure joy, even with the most reluctant of sisters. The first moment the five sisters dance around is truly infectious. There is the wonder in what is predominantly an intimate story if some of this intimacy is lost due to the grand nature of the set. If anything it speaks to the versatility of the play, but as a first time viewer of it, I did wonder if the impact might have been greater had the action all taken place in more of an enclosed space.
Brian Friels story, loosely inspired by his own family, shows plenty of nuance with fully fleshed out characters whose stories unravel as events progress. While it can be a slow burn to begin with, it soon picks up speed as the writing seemingly gets better and better. With moments of comedy and joy throughout, Dancing at Lughnasa has a bit of a strange narrative in that it is told by the adult Michael Evans (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) looking back at that summer. It’s the moment in act two when he skips to the end of the story, revealing the less than happy fates of many of the characters – before the action reverts back that feels a little jarring. Admirable and refreshing in its approach but a move that may prove divisive to some.
The five Mundy sisters all have their moments in the sun, collectively proving to be a strong unit and individually shining. Alison Oliver delights as Christina whose love story gives way to many of the biggest smiles in the show, Bláithín Mac Gabhan is excellent channelling the complexities of Rose and Louisa Harland is captivating even in her quieter moments as Agnes.
The two older Mundy sisters dominate proceedings with Justine Mitchell giving a flawless portrayal as the maternal Kate. Having to be the grown up of the bunch has taken its toll on her, and Justine does a fine job showcasing the moments Kate longs to break free, particularly early on in the show. The standout performance belongs to Siobhán McSweeney in a completely scene-stealing turn as the larger than life Maggie. Always ready to lighten the mood when things get serious, she is a constant presence in the show and one that elevates the action even when she isn’t immediately involved.
The cast are completed by a trio of male acquaintances for the family. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is brooding and mysterious as Michael. Despite never interacting with the other characters directly, his narration is always fixating. Ardal O’Hanlon swaps Father Ted for Father Jack (Not the one from the show) in a role that is initially limited but grows through the shows second act. Even when his stage time is fleeting, an actor as established as Ardal effortlessly impresses and had me longing to find out more about him and his mysterious stories. The final cast member is another standout with Tom Riley’s comic performance as Gerry bringing some of the biggest laughs. At times feeling like he is in a completely different show, the almost caricature nature of him works well especially when interacting with the differing Mundy sisters.
Dancing at Lughnasa is a show that might take its time to grab your interest, but when it does it will have you hooked. Utterly captivating and at times unconventional in its approach, its refreshingly different storytelling device, impressive set design and truly outstanding cast ensure this is an overall winning show which delicately balances the joy in life with the uncertainty and fragility of the future. Continuing the trend of fantastically put together shows, National Theatre are truly having a great harvest this season.
Dancing at Lughnasa plays at National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until 27th May. Tickets from https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/dancing-at-lughnasa/
Photos by Johan Persson