The fictional setting of Ballybeg Johannes Hjorth

"In that memory, atmosphere is more real than incident and everything is simultaneously actual and illusory." Spoken by Michael – or rather Michaela, as this production would have it – this perfectly summarises the late Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. Caught up in the domestic, parochial scenes of 1930s Northern Ireland in the fictional Ballybeg, Enrico Hallworth’s direction of this classroom classic is a traditional and fitting homage to the great Irish writer through its creation of a solid and audience-infiltrating atmosphere.

Situated in the home of the Mundy family, Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play told from the perspective of the narrator, played sensitively by Ellen McGrath, as she reflects on a particular summer from her childhood. Her absence from the scenes as a child is a constant reminder to the audience that they are viewing a memory and makes for a personal story. The set is homely and the myriad of props, most notably the Marconi wireless radio, are symbolic in many ways of the blurring of lines between rural and modern life. The intimacy of the Corpus Playroom allows the space to reflect that of the close-knit, provisional Ballybeg, particularly in the dance scene,s where the pent-up energy of the Mundy sisters explodes out of the interior set, through the doorway and into the garden space. These dance scenes, vital to the message of the play, halt the stagnancy and mundaneness of everyday life through their transportation of the adults to a happier, more innocent time. Michaela can only embrace the importance of such moments when she, too, is an adult reminiscing.

And yet it is the acting in this production that makes this the best Corpus show of the term. Stella Pryce is Kate Mundy down to a tee, a woman bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders, whose comedic facial expressions and genuine portrayal of anxiety about her family make her a much warmer character than she is on the page. Alex Ciupka is a lively Maggie, with an impressive ability to sing on demand, and she is contrasted by Una McAllister's sensible and resolute Agnes. The naïve character of Rose is taken on by Connie Harper Dent, who manages not to over-egg the sister’s disability. The director takes on the role of the only brother in the family – Father Jack – with sincerity and heart-warmingly honest confusion. But it is the relationship between Chris and Gerry that sets the stage on fire: Stanley Thomas’ enthusiasm is not missed as he spurts out Gerry’s trademark "wow, wow, wow" and Elisa Hagan’s sternness in the kitchen melts away as she dances in her lover’s arms.

Dancing at Lughnasa is not to be missed. It brings together all the important and individual elements of this play to celebrate the mastery of Brian Friel, who passed away this October. A traditional production with impressively authentic accents, staging and acting makes for a play that is both saddening and tranquilly nostalgic.

 

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