Dancing at Lughnasa review: All promises are sealed with a maybe

Brian Friel’s classic returns to the stage

Dancing at Lughnasa: ‘An explosion of flour and frustration unites the sisters as their wireless provokes a ceilidhe in the kitchen’. Photograph: Darragh Kane

Everyman, Cork


The distance between what seemed to be and what was true is a space often explored by Brian Friel and nowhere more poignantly than in Dancing at Lughnasa.

In the quest to define and correct the inaccuracies of memory, Friel’s solution has been the reminiscent observer, in this case the adult son of an unmarried mother who is remembering a childhood summer spent with his aunts at their rural smallholding. Like Anthony Powell’s Jenkins, the narrator replays a dance to the music of time; the latitude and longitude of this loving nostalgia should create the tension between the actual and the perceived.


The five Mundy sisters are caught in the Ireland of 1936, with the Spanish Civil War to the west, a looming world war to the east, local entrepreneurs bringing an end to the cottage industry that has brought necessary income to the household, and Catholic Ireland alive and kicking very hard against any real or apparent questioning of its dominance.

These women, in their individual ways, endure the ethos of their community. Each lives in her own fear, but a shared dread is implied in their care for their uncle Jack, a missionary priest retired home on the shaming grounds that he had gone native. His dance is a pagan pairing to the explosion of flour and frustration uniting the sisters as their wireless provokes a ceilidhe in the kitchen.

Director Julie Kelleher has left it up to the audience to decide that this is an angry play, guided by designer Deirdre Dwyer's suspended montage of fractured domestic imagery. The five women in the cast reveal themselves as honestly as they have been written and Gary Murphy's Fr Jack recovers his tribal affinities after a shambling start.

As Michael, though lumbered both by a mug in his hand and competitive background music, Jack Healy establishes an affectionate tone of recall and premonition in a play in which, to paraphrase Friel himself, all the promises are sealed with a maybe.

Runs until August 26

Mary Leland

Mary Leland is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture