The Everyman Theatre continues to be a beautiful place to take in the arts 120 years after its opening, even with some inopportune interruptions from traffic outside. The old MacCurtain Street theatre is currently putting on a production of Brian Friel’s classic play, ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. I must admit my only previous exposure to Friel was studying Lughnasa in school, reading the text and watching the film starring Meryl Streep, but I did enjoy studying it so my hopes were high.
Dancing at Lughnasa, if you didn’t know it, is set in the fictional Donegal town of Ballybeg in 1936. The narrator, Michael Evans, tells us of his memory of that Summer years ago, and the role it played in the lives of his father, his mother and her siblings, the famous Mundy Sisters.
I was delighted to see that this production of Dancing at Lughnasa bucked a trend I’ve noticed in Irish theatre of late to modernise the setting in seemingly pointless ways. Indeed, the set was wonderfully done, hanging props from the ceiling to get around the rather diminutive Everyman stage.
The play opens with a brief speech from the narrator, played by Jack Healy, who bears a startling resemblance to playwright Brian Friel. One issue with productions of Lughnasa is the character of Michael, who acts as both the narrator and his childhood self, in that productions rarely feature a child onstage even though characters interact with him. While I think a little bit more could’ve been done to differentiate when the actor is the narrator or the child outside of lighting changes, the diction used by Healy worked rather well throughout.
Before I get into the lion’s share of praise I should touch upon the negatives, because they were rather few and far between. While both the actors portraying Rose Mundy and Gerry Evans (Rosie O’Regan & Barry McKiernan respectively) were clearly very talented, the choice of accents for both wasn’t great. Regarding Rose, I know it can be hard to portray someone with a (to quote the wikipedia article on Dancing) ‘developmental disability’ without resorting to parody, but you can do that without sounding like a Corkonian Bosco. I eventually warmed to it, but it took me a while to get used to it.
Gerry Evans, a Welshman in the text, was here portrayed as some sort of cockney dandy. Again, this wouldn’t have been as much an issue if they didn’t refer to him as being from Wales several times in the play. A nitpick, maybe, but it was similarly jarring at times. Despite the accent, McKiernan was able to provide the earnest charm that makes the character of Gerry Evans work in the latter half of the play.
Immense praise needs to be heaped upon the lighting team, which seems like an odd thing to hold as the best aspect of a production, but it was. A standout moment was when Maggie is told of her childhood friend’s successful life: she has a seemingly wealthy husband, beautiful kids and a life beyond Ballybeg, whereas Maggie, for all her humour and joy, is stuck caring for her family in Ballybeg. The lighting in this scene very subtly focuses in on Maggie, drawing the audience’s eye to her. The warm lighting puts us in a nostalgic feeling with a tinge of melancholy, allowing the acting of Eva Bartley (Maggie) to really shine. I attended the play with a colleague, and we both remarked about how fantastic the lighting was throughout, so praise should be heaped on lighting designer Brian Mitchell.
Something else worth praising is the casting & direction in general. All of the actors were clearly talented, and gave wonderful performances. While there may have been some missteps with accents & diction, the portrayals of Kate (Julie Sharkey), Agnes (Jeanna O’Connor), Chris (Martha Dunlea) and Jack (Gary Murphy) must be praised for fitting their characters well, with the same being said for the aforementioned Maggie & Michael (Bartley & Healy respectively). In fact, the only change I would really make is tweaking the script a small bit to retcon Gerry’s homeland to somewhere east of the Severn…
Overall, the play really is a must-see. The negatives are easily outshined by the positives, and unless you aren’t a fan of Friel’s style, an enjoyable show is guaranteed. Highlights include the outstanding lighting, the set and the acting of Jack Healy and Eva Bartley in particular.
Dancing At Lughnasa is running in the Everyman Theatre until Saturday 26th of August. Tickets are available online and at the box office, with a reduced cost of €9 per person (from €28) with a valid student ID. Student tickets may only be purchased at the box office on MacCurtin Street.