Dancing at Lughnasa

This beautifully crafted play from playwright Brian Friel is the tale of one summer in 1936, told through the memories of Michael Mundy. It is a slice of life told in such a way that one feels that it was full of moments that shaped the Michael Mundy character as a man.

The piece opens with the ‘moving parts’ of the story, utterly still in tableau, while Michael introduces us to the tale. This is so well done that, whilst your eye is drawn to the tableau, you are still very much listening to what Michael has to say. Indeed, you really have to be, as it shapes the evening. He has four aunts, an uncle and a mother, all of whom are unmarried and live together – happily, for the most part. These parts, along with that of Michael’s father, are rich tapestries of character, all.

You have the matriarchal sister, Kate (a nicely bossy and tight performance from Francesca Folen), and the lively Maggie, who, whilst not technically the matriarch, very much keeps the family together and in line with the use of humour and love: a delightful showing from Joanne Owen.

Then there is Agnes, who is a lovelorn, deep thinker with so many layers, whose unseen later life, we are told, takes a different slant; she is beautifully and calmly played by Joanna Dunbar. Michael’s mother, Chris, is also lovelorn but in a different way as she is much more flighty and excitable. In this, Rhiannon Horne is superbly impressive and a delight to watch as she sometimes seems to glide around the stage.

The final, fifth sister is Rose. This character is one of those that is a true actor’s gift – a real, tangible present for a performer to unwrap and take apart and in which to truly immerse themselves. Marie Bushell takes this opportunity to flex her acting muscles and totally smashes it. Later on, Uncle Father Jack is bought in. He has not been well and has lost some of his mental faculties. There would be a temptation to overplay this, but Stuart Glossop beautifully underplays and gives us a performance to cherish.

The last of the ‘moving parts’ is Michael’s father, Gerry Evans. This needs someone who can be flirty, lively, excited, incorrigible but also with a little depth. Stewart Barlow steps in to these shoes and dances the character into our hearts with an almost Barnum-esque draw that makes the sisters love and chastise him in equal measure.

As Michael, the narrator and the voice of his younger self, Lee Tilson’s use of the language becomes so silky and absorbing that towards the end, it is pure, beautiful poetry to listen to. I can’t think of a local performer more suited to this, another gift of a part.

All of this beauty only comes together so well from good writing and strong – very strong – direction. Director Patricia Richardson once again surrounds herself with some of the best of local talent and intricately steers them to make a very wordy play (with superbly crafted accents, by the way) a joy and delight to watch.

Lastly, big shout-outs must go to Margaret Eaton for props and set dressing – where she gets the stuff from, I don’t know, but she gets it and it all fits so nicely – and to Gary Hayton for the sound design: at one moment I could have sworn I heard a bird flutter away, so realistic that I could almost see it.

This is an evening for you to soak up a set of stories, beautifully told, and I strongly encourage you to check it out. Future performances are at the Hub in Verwood on 17 March and the Plaza in Romsey on 19 March. Both start at 7.30.