The glow of a sunlit summer

Dancing at Lughnasa by Brien Friel at Colchester Mercury until 16 June.

This is a story about five sisters struggling to make ends meets in 1930s backwoods Ireland, none of them very young any more but they still have their hopes. And there’s a wonderful spell when, against all expectations, the Mundy girls let loose and dance together.

It starts as fun and gradually evolves into a wild jig of frustration and suppressed sex, partly at full speed, partly in brilliant slow motion, and in those moments their emotions are laid bare and we can see all their disappointments, non-fulfilments and furies bursting to the surface.

It’s part of the dream-like quality director Sue Lefton and designer Sara Perks have brought to the piece in their cottage without walls set at the edge of a bright field of corn, some of it so high that it might just be the heat-bleached tall grass of Africa.

The sisters’ story is told by Michael, the love-child son of Christina, looking back as an adult to the sunlit summer of 1936 when he was seven and the harsh realities of a changing world are starting to crumble the already poor existence of his mother and aunts. Played by Ian Kirkby, he moves in and out of the action filling in the details with the women sometimes in sort of freeze-frame. It’s very effective.

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Kate (Kelly Williams), the eldest and the only one with a real job, is a kind of matriarch, always trying to hold the family together. Agnes and Rose knit gloves on a piece-work basis and Maggie (Michelle Butt) acts as housekeeper and joker – because this is a tale not short of laughs.

Their brother Jack (Ignatius Anthony) is the first nail in the coffin. He’s a priest who’s been sent home from his missionary work in Africa for going native and swiftly gets up local Catholic noses.

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Jack’s new-found religion is not too unlike the paganish dancing activities at the Festival of Lughnasa in the nearby Donegal hills that the church is so against. And he costs Kate her job. Then a local knitting factory puts Agnes and Rose (Kristin Hutchinson and Clare Humphrey) out of work and the axe is falling..

Gerry, father of the young Michael, drops in to see Christina (Nadia Morgan) once in a rare while. Played by Tomos James, he is charmer and good dancer and clearly has a way with women but, as we later discover, marriage to Chris has never really been on the cards.

This is beautifully acted throughout and cleverly covers what is really a story of many sadnesses in a dreamy, colourful, warm glow of love and humour.

David Henshall.

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