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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  Dancing at Lughnasa
By Brian Friel


New Venture Theatre, Brighton
Directed by Gerry McCrudden.

There is a story that Irish folk dancers keep their arms straight to their sides as an act of defiance against their oppressors. Forbidden to carry on national traditions by the British occupiers in the 19th century, it meant they could dance ‘secretly’. As they patrolled past the window the soldiers would see only a strange bobbing while the feet thrashed furiously out of sight.

True or not, there is rebellion in dance, a point eloquently made by Dancing at Lughnasa.

Set in Donegal in the 1930s, when the Catholic church was seeking to assert its power and repress the wilder Celtic aspects of Irish culture, Dancing at Lughnasa tells the story of five sisters whose life together comes under threat from recession, industrialisation and the return of brother Jack, a missionary priest who has spent most of his life in Africa.

There is a danger in playing a character called Father Jack, which Paddy O’Keeffe deftly avoids with a soft, halting, apologetic delivery that draws you into his mystery.

Jack has lost a lot of his English vocabulary, though it isn’t clear at first whether this is a result of malaria, dementia or speaking Swahili for so long.

As he recovers his priestly story-telling powers, however, it becomes clear that Jack has been sent home in disgrace. He’s gone native, dumping boring Christianity for wordless native ceremonies of ritual and blood sacrifice.

There is a parallel closer to home in the pagan harvest festival of Lughnasa, which the sisters never quite get to but haunts them with the promise of a kind of freedom.

Instead they have the new wireless set, nicknamed Marconi, which like the other men in the play, is unreliable, forever overheating and going off.

When it’s on, it’s really on, though, corrupting the sisters with rhythms Celtic and Broadway. Towards the end of the first half the stage erupts into dance, the drumbeats pounded out on the kitchen table, the flesh fitting in visceral joy. Kate (a powerful and pivotal performance by Jennifer Keappock), the one trying to keep them in line, wrestles with her animal instincts before she, too, succumbs in a jig possessed, grim-faced and, yes, utterly defiant.

The story is narrated and framed by Michael (John Tolputt), the illegitimate son of sister Christina (Amy Holmes) and the foppish Gerry (Martin Gogarty) who is making a characteristically brief visit before joining the International Brigades in Spain – though he has no real idea why.

Looking back over 50 years, Michael’s narration highlights what’s been lost and picks at the causes of the family’s break-up and the end of a comfortable, happy childhood world. He has tracked down his aunts Agnes (Claire Armstrong) and Rose (Charlotte Grimes) who fled the family that summer, only to die inebriate and destitute in London, like so many uprooted from their community by industrialisation.

Ironically it is Maggie (Sarah Davies), the wildest of the five, who has made the best job of holding what’s left of the family together, despite – or perhaps because of - her riddling and teasing and passion.

Michael’s closing speech makes the case for dance to supplant language, but that’s undermined by Friel’s own writing, light and beautiful, skipping across the stage.

February 22, 2010

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