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Dancing at Lughnasa By Brian Friel

Performed by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

The Tobacco Factory Theatre

Directed by Sue Wilson

To me, Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is one of the most nostalgic, tender and atmospheric plays in the English language and The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School have produced a stunning version for a new generation to fall in love with.

As you step into the main house at the Tobacco Factory you are instantly transported to another world. A flagstone path, littered with the red poppies of late summer gives way to the warm hearth of the Mundy family croft, complete with smoke off the dying embers. Outside is the wide expanse of an ancient tree stretching its branches through the heart of the home like the many generations of Mundy men and women who had come before. This is a world created for dreaming and thanks to designer Sarah Mills; you cannot help but get lost here.

The play depicts the childhood summer of 1936 as remembered by the adult Michael Mundy (Gavin Swift). Adult Michael circumvents the action played out as Child Michael interacts with his four spinster aunts Maggie, Kate, Rose and Agnes (Cate Cammack, Jennifer Greenwood, Leigh Quinn and Amy Sutton), his mother Christina (Madeleine Leslay), his uncle Jack (Andy McKeane) and his mostly absent father, Gerry (Mark Donald).

Dancing at Lughnasa thrives on the magic of the mundane, yet is cut through with an undercurrent of longing, family duty, confinement and missed opportunity. Loosely based on Friel’s own upbringing, the story follows those final weeks of summer and is marked by the Celtic festival of Lughnasa, which gives the piece its name.

Rich with symbolism, Friel clearly draws obvious correlations between conventional Catholic ceremonies and primal pagan ritual, one of the most moving examples being the Flour Dance, led by Maggie (played with vivacity and energy by Cate Cammack). In the original text the music used is the traditional Irish Reel, The Mason’s Apron. In this production this magical dance is taken to another place by quite modern sounding/new age shop evoking piece of unidentified origin which wasn’t entirely convincing, but didn’t stop the flow of emotion evoked by this joyous outburst.

All performances are strong, considered and convincing, along with most of the accent work. However, particular mention should go to Andy McKeane for his portrayal of Father Jack; the Priest sent home from his work with lepers in Uganda due to ill-health (although there is clear indications this is not the entire story). McKeane gives a physically convincing performance as a man in his late 50s and we are soothed and gathered in by his humanist and gentle nature.

This is a student performance but it is by no means a parochial. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production of Dancing whisks the audience away to a time when life was simple and joy could be found in a kite, a spinning top or a slick of lipstick. This production will fill your heart and warm your soul.

Dancing at Lughnassa is playing until the 23rd of June at the Tobacco Factory Theatre main auditorium. Performance Time is at 7.30pm (with matinees on Thu 14, Sat 16, Thu 21 and Sat 23 at 2.30pm) and last around two hours and forty minutes. Ticket prices are £15.00 and £10.00 concession. To book tickets ring 0117 902 0344.

**** ½ (Four and a half stars)

Alison Farina

13th June 2012