Dancing at Lughnasa

Newtownstewart Theatre Company do justice to Brian Friel's beloved play at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh

Following just two public performances in their local hall, the Newtownstewart Theatre Company bring their production of Brian Friel’s Dancing At Lughnasa to the stage of the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh.

Their set, which includes a cottage kitchen and its front garden, seems cramped enough for the full cast of five Mundy sisters; their brother, Father Jack, recently returned after 18 year’s in Rwanda; the narrator Michael, who looks back on the summer of 1936, when he was a child of seven; and his father, Gerry Evans, returned to Ballybeg on a rare visit.

The action takes place in the run up to the traditional Harvest Festival of Lughnasa, which begins on August 1, the feast day of the Pagan god, Lugh.

When the play first opened at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in April 1990, the cast of professional actors had the luxury of a much larger raked stage and a splendid set, complete with a poppy strewn meadow. Although the play has since been performed all over the world, garnering prestigious awards along the way, the homeliness of this production turns out to be its great strength.

The five brave Glenties women – namely Friel’s mother and her sisters – to whom this play is dedicated would have spoken with a Donegal lilt, but Friel, who was born in the parish of Knockmoyle, half way between Omagh and Newtownstewart, would surely appreciate the warm brogue of these Tyrone players.

They are completely at home with Friel’s language, the gossip, the humour – Maggie’s rhymes and riddles, her outsize bloomers, her love of wild woodbines – the tunes they hear on their radio set, nicknamed Marconi, and above all the dance.

The moment when Maggie (Briege McSorley), her hands in the bread bowl, suddenly splashes flour on her face, whoops 'Yahoo!' and begins to dance, is brilliantly realised. One by one the sisters join in. Chris (Ciara Connolly) dons Father Jack’s surplus as if to cock a snook at the Catholic church.

The music grows louder, and the dancing wilder as these spinster ladies, who have been bypassed in the marriage market, experience a brief moment of abandon, release and relief. It is to be their last celebration before things fell apart.

Shauna McConomy, who plays Rose, is faultless as the ‘simple’ sister. Julie McKelvey is well cast as the quiet, sensitive Agnes. She has a 'wee yen' for Gerry Evans (Alistair Moran) and he for her, so that when he asks her to dance, Chris throws a fit of peak.

Gillian Mayse is too soft spoken to fully convey the full weight of Kate’s authority. Nicknamed ‘the gander’ by the children she teaches, Kate is conservative, self righteous and strict, and toes the line on matters religious.

Furthermore, she holds the purse strings and lays down the law in the Mundy household. She decides that mature women should not attend the Lughnasa harvest dance, and counsels Chris with caution when Gerry Evans proposes marriage.

Not only has he treated her shabbily, leaving her to bring up their son Michael alone, he is off to Spain to fight for democracy alongside those communists who are not Christian. Yet Kate is so protective of her family she cannot accept that Father Jack was sent home from Africa in disgrace when he embraced traditional African rituals and rites, or that he might be the reason she finally lost her teaching job.

When Father Jack (Terry Hood) suggests the ladies do as the African women do and find one man who will marry them all, Kate reminds him that Pope Pius XI would not agree.

Thus the play highlights the underlying tension between African and Celtic customs and Catholicism, between the old order and the new. When a knitting factory is established in Donegal and the industrial revolution finally arrives in Ballybeg, there are no longer any buyers for Rose and Agnes’s hand-knitted gloves. So the two sisters leave to find work in London, and Chris reluctantly signs on in the factory.

The play ends as it begins with Michael (Fintan Gallagher) fleshing out the story of the Mundy family. Standing alone, his shadow silhouetted on the kitchen wall, he reveals how, in London, Rose and Agnes clean public toilets, work on the underground, begin drinking and sleep rough. There is no happy ending.

Paul Browne’s sympathetic direction includes some nice touches, such as the still poses adopted by his characters. For an amateur production, this take on one of Friel's most beloved plays is incredibly well produced. Newtownstewart Players should be commended for providing such an enjoyable evening at the theatre.