Sunday 17 December 2017

Sisters shine in Friel's epic tale



EACH time you see Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, it beguiles and saddens anew; it's nice to believe that the schools audiences who will see the Second Age production of the play for the first time are beginning a lifelong love affair with the piece, and indeed with theatre in general. (Please!)

Certainly, David Horan's production at the Helix in Dublin will give them every chance to be aware of the play's extraordinary resonance and subtlety, showing them an Ireland that was almost unbearably ugly and cruel but yet did not succeed in destroying totally the well of joy in its people.

The story of the five Mundy sisters living a life barely above subsistence on the outskirts of the Donegal town of Ballybeg, shunned by the town because the youngest, Chrissie, has kept and reared her "illegitimate" son Michael, and their brother, the broken missionary priest Jack, has been sent home in disgrace from Africa, seems harsh enough in all conscience. But the adult Michael, recalling his aunts as they lived in that summer of 1936, goes on to tell a tale that becomes gross in it mundane horror as he describes the later fate of the five women, which in its turn makes the events of Lughnasa 1936 seem like an idyllic memory, sun-dappled and secure.

Horan is meticulous in his direction, as a director must be when he is aiming at audiences studying the text for exam purposes, but he also gives it a genuine dramatic and authentic appeal as a piece of theatre. He is assisted in no small way by immaculate casting, with all the sisters played by actors of the correct age, from matriarchal Kate who is still young enough to hope for marriage and even children, down to Rose, the baby in more than age, her vacant innocence a constant danger in a sexually repressed society.

Donna Dent and Maeve Fitzgerald head the cast as the two sisters, with perfect support from Susannah de Wrixon, Kate Ni Chonaonaigh and Marie Ruane.

The men fare slightly less well. Garrett Keogh, a fine actor, is Father Jack, but the whimsical touch he lends to the part seems to extend inwards, as though the priest is anything but confused concerning a past which has involved going native, "losing his faith" and arguably having been caught in flagrante with his houseboy. Stephen Swift as the caddish Gerry has some accent problems. And Charlie Bonner's Michael does not have quite enough of the quality of recollection in tranquillity: his world may be a million miles away from Ballybeg, but there should still be agonised strings that he has never succeeded in breaking. Bonner is almost academically detached.


Sean McLoughlin's second play has been a while coming, but it's been worth the wait. His first was Noah and the Tower Flower -- a quirky piece of optimism in the face of almost insuperable odds for two young souls lost in the angry forest of urban wasteland. Four years later, his new piece is Big Ole Piece of Cake. It's a Fishamble production at the Civic in Tallaght, and it's even funnier than its predecessor.

It's also a wistful tragedy and a mordant commentary on society. It may seem impossible to combine all that in 80 stage minutes, but McLoughlin has succeeded, largely due to what seems like a total lack of authorial self-importance. He lets his characters do the talking, and draws them so well they are more than capable of taking up the challenge.

Clarence has thumbed a lift from Colin and Ray on the dark road outside a Co Wicklow pub. He's a lonely pensioner, it seems, and they're two semi-derelict brothers from inner city Dublin, Ray in his 40s, Colin thirty-ish. They've been violently evicted from the family flat by their drug-dealing brother who is newly arrived home from England.

Or so it seems. But as they settle into a convivial evening in Clarence's cottage, one heck of a lot more emerges, insanely, wildly, threateningly, ominously, all centred on the caravan conveniently parked at the back of the cottage. Colin is thick, "a retard" as his brother obligingly keeps repeating. But he's dead grateful to Clarence for his kindness, and resolves to help him in a dispute with his neighbour. Except they settle neighbourhood disputes rather drastically in the inner city. Of course it all unravels into an inevitable and almost Greek-ly heralded tragedy.

Yet McLoughlin manages to convince us that nothing has really happened: these people were pre-destined for the roles they have played out, and it's as though they leave the theatre with us, their haunted lives casting a shadow from the part of society we prefer not to acknowledge.

Jim Culleton directs Mark Lambert as Clarence, Ian Lloyd-Anderson as Colin, and Joe Hanley as Ray in a piece that could do with 10 or 15 minutes cut from the first half, but otherwise is as uniquely thought-provoking and oddly charming as I've seen in a while.

Sunday Independent

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