Dancing for joy

DancingDancing at Lughnasa, South London Theatre, Tuesday 21st March

Another play about an oddly-shaped family, with dancing and questions of belonging at its heart. There, the comparisons between Jerusalem and Dancing at Lughnasa largely end; though both are, in their own ways, wickedly funny.

From England in early-2000s we travel back to rural Ireland in 1936. While the former is set on St. George’s Day, Lughnasa (pronounced loo-nassa) is the Gaelic day of celebration to mark the start of the late-summer harvest.

The play follows the five sisters of the working-class Mundy family, as they struggle to keep their household and maintain a decent standard of living. Living in a small and conservative village, their task is made all the more difficult by the controversy of one sister having a child out of marriage and the return home of their older brother from a long posting as a missionary priest in Africa.

Instead of being welcomed back a hero for spreading the word of God, Father Jack is politely shunned by the rest of the village. It becomes clear to the Mundys, and to the audience, that Jack was sent home. Instead of converting the indigenous population to the path Christianity, he ventured out on his own spiritual safari and became obsessed with the earth-worshipping pagan rituals of the peoples he encountered.

The writer Brian Friel based the play loosely on his own childhood in rural Ireland. He once asked himself, in a written dialogue, what the play was ‘about’. “The play is about dancing in the 30s” was his deadpan reply.

In one sense, that response is correct. The play is small. All the action takes place in the kitchen of the house and the yard. Only one other character from outside the family appear; the otherwise absent father, Gerry Evans, of the ‘lovechild’ Michael. Within the confines of the onstage drama, very little happens beyond one of the sisters going missing for a few hours (to catch a squeeze with a suitor) and the sudden appearance of Gerry.

Yet the mere act of “dancing in the 1930s” is an expression of celebration, hope and joy. As the play progresses, we learn about the fate of the characters through the occasional appearance of Michael, now a grown-up, as an on-stage narrator.

Spoiler alert.

We learn from Michael’s narration that Jack dies very shortly after the play ends, while two of the sisters end up drunk and destitute in London. The other family members avoid such bleak fates, but none are blessed with lives of comfort or ease.

All the important then, the older Michael points out, to enjoy those times like his childhood summer of 1936 when the people you love are alive, close by and can sing, dance and play with you.

“Dancing at Lughnasa” is a beautiful celebration of life.

A final point, away from the drama, and another comparison with Jerusalem, to return to my original theme. Dancing with Lughnasa was another high-quality amateur / semi-professional production in a great venue run and maintained by volunteers. We’re blessed to have people like them.

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