Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa is a memory play told from the perspective of Michael (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), nephew to five sisters living in a cottage near the fictional town of Ballybeg.
He recalls a particular childhood Summer which shaped the future of the family.
His narrative isn't always linear, sometimes he tells you what is coming before it happens, injecting a layer of melancholy and foreboding underneath the laughter, hope and dancing that breaks out when the wireless decides to work.
Kate (Justine Mitchell) is the 'matriarch' and breadwinner, a teacher and a strict follower of social and religious values. Maggie (Siobhán McSweeney) is the homemaker and fun-bringer who loves riddles.
Chris (Alison Oliver) is the unmarried mother of Michael, a romantic prone to depression after the fleeting and unplanned visits of Gerry (Tom Riley), Michael's father.
Agnes (Louisa Harland) and Rose (Bláithín Mac Gabhann) knit gloves to sell in the town earning very little, and the latter has a simple, child-like naiveté despite her age.
The sisters are a tight affectionate unit, each with their particular chores. Teasing, jokes, gossip - and the dancing - cement the narrow landscape of their lives.
It is pertinent that the central narrative drivers are the arrival of men into the story. There are Gerry's sporadic visits and the return home of Jack (Ardal O'Hanlon), the sisters' brother.
Jack has been away for 25 years, working as a missionary in a Leper colony in Uganda, an occupation that has made him a local celebrity, except his return might not be for reasons the sisters think.
Both men have a freedom that the women do not. And both seem immune to the impact their past behaviour has on the women and family.
The set serves to emphasise this. The small cottage is surrounded by a produce garden and an expanse of fields through which a muddy path winds.
It gives a sense of the limited scope of the women's lives, despite the scale of the world beyond. Beyond the boundary is coloured by the news from the town, their memories of unfulfilled youthful romances and the lives of old-school friends.
They escape vicariously through the lives of others and through dancing, which is wild and free and full of abandonment of the trials and challenges of their lives. They dance like no one is watching - because no one is.
And that is what is most affecting about this play: the fun despite the striving, the support for each other despite the struggles and the wistfulness without feeling sorry for themselves.
It's set in the 1930s, and yet it feels fresh; the idea of women being held up to different standards to men, having fewer opportunities and having to fight harder for them.
Dancing at Lughnasa is slow to get going, but it gets under your skin, and you don't realise it until long afterwards. It's a play that is joyful and sad, charming and moving.
I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Dancing at Lughnasa, National Theatre
Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Josie Rourke
Starring: Ardal O'Hanlon, Siobhan McSweeney
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including an interval.
Booking until 27 May, visit the National Theatre website for more information and tickets.
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