Classic play Dancing at Lughnasa shows how to survive the trials of family life

Emma Martin & Frances Lamb in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey

Emma Martin & Frances Lamb in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey - Credit: Archant

Dancing at Lughnasa is one of the great theatre experiences of recent years. David Henshall speaks to Emma Martin about the play and it’s view on family life, prior to a new regional tour by Suffolk-based Open Space Theatre Company

Hannah Gardiner & Frances Lamb in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey

Hannah Gardiner & Frances Lamb in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey - Credit: Archant

Dancing at Lughnasa is one of my favourite plays, full of fun and love and characters who we feel deserve better from life. It is also, as the title suggests, about dancing, but dance with a difference, occasional, wild and uninhibited.

Written by Brian Friel and set in 1936 County Donegal, it is a story told by the adult Michael looking back at the summer days he spent with his mother and four aunts at their cottage in the fictional town of Ballybeg when he was seven.

Loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and sisters, it won eight major awards in the West End and New York when launched in 1991. It is the choice of Open Space for their spring tour of the Norfolk-Suffolk border which opens tomorrow.

Peter Sowerbutts is Father Jack in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey

Peter Sowerbutts is Father Jack in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey - Credit: Archant

The 1930s herald hard times for Irish families caught in the nutcracker of the depression and a rigid religion, but love might be on the cards for one or two of the Munday sisters who also look after their elder brother Jack, a priest who has returned from long years as a missionary in Africa.


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Jack has almost certainly been sent home for “going native”, losing sight of his Catholic faith and the story takes place in late August around the Celtic Festival of Lughnasa, celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, a merrymaking which the church regards as pagan, often fed by homemade poteen.

But this, combined with habits uncle Jack picked up in Uganda, could wreck any dreams the sisters entertain.

Mia Chadwick as Kate in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey

Mia Chadwick as Kate in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey - Credit: Archant

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Schoolteacher Kate is the eldest, the only wage-earner, a mother figure but not without thoughts of romance. Maggie is the homemaker, the joker, the tension-defuser with hopes of her own. Chris is the youngest, infatuated by Gerry, the travelling salesman with a wandering eye and father of Michael. Rose and Agnes knit gloves on a precarious piecework basis and Rose, a bit simple, says that Danny, an unseen character, is crazy about her.

Emma Martin plays Chris and is very taken by the sisters who are so different but all of whom have a very modern way of caring for and supporting her son, born out of wedlock in poverety-stricken 1930s Catholic Ireland.

“They live a fairly independent life in their own home but the world outside is never going to let them achieve what they deserve to achieve.

Emma Martin as Chris in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey

Emma Martin as Chris in Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo: Mike Allmey - Credit: Archant

“There’s some brilliantly funny comedy in it, especially the character of Maggie who is played by Cathy Edwards-Gill and wonderful in the part. She’s the joymaker with the ability to break up any tensions within the group and the daft moments are very important to the story when you really see them let go.”

How does she see Chris who, young innocent and madly in love, was led astray by Gerry at 18 and ostracised by the community?

“She has a problem with the way the other women help to bring up Michael. They provide him with different things she can’t give him which is wonderful for Michael but frustrating for her.

“She has a basic strength but her biggest weakness is Gerry who comes back from time to time. But she’s not stupid, she knows he’s not going to stay with her, but when he turns up she loses control, loses that strength and goes to pieces.”

A radio that works only intermittently brings dance and folk music into their lives at random moments, leading the women into sudden outburst of wild dancing. “The style of dance has been a massive discussion point for us, about the thoughts and feelings we need to embrace. Some of it is being choreographed but a lot of it we do naturally.

“I think every night will be different. The characters are expressing their frustrations and letting themselves go to get in touch with their animalistic side. In rehearsals we’ve been exhausted not just phystically, but emotionally.”

Kate is played by Mia Chadwick with Hannah Gardiner as Agnes and Frances Lamb as Rose. Peter Sowerbutts is Father Jack with Darren France as Gerry and Joe Edward-Gill playing Michael.

Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel, staged by Open Space Theatre Company, is at Wingfield Barns tomorrow (01379 384505); Huntingfield Hub, Saturday, April 7 (01986 799130); Halesworth Cut, April 13 (0300 3033211); Bungay Fisher, April 14 (01986 897130); Lowestoft Seagull, April 20 (01502 589 726).

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