Dancing at Lughnasa Reviews ★★★★

Reviews are coming in for the National Theatre’s revival of Brian Friel’s award-winning play Dancing at Lughnasa.

Josie Rourke’s revival of Brian Friel’s Olivier Award-winning play runs in the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until 27 May 2023.

The cast includes Siobhán McSweeney (Derry Girls), Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted), Alison Oliver (Conversations with Friends) and Louisa Harland (Derry Girls) alongside Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Bláithín Mac Gabhann, Justine Mitchell and Tom Riley.

The play is set during harvest time in County Donegal, 1936, outside the village of Ballybeg. The five Mundy sisters battle poverty to raise seven-year-old Michael and care for their Uncle Jack, and during the Festival of Lughnasa, Pagan and Christian meet and collide. The sisters fight, love, dance, yearn and survive, in this astonishing evocation of a family’s world on the brink of change.

The creative team also includes Set and costume design by Robert Jones, lighting designer is Mark Henderson, choreographer is Wayne McGregor, composer is Hannah Peel, sound designer is Emma Laxton and casting director is Alastair Coomer CDG.

Read reviews from the London theatre critics, with more reviews to follow.

Book tickets to Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre in London

Photos by Johan Persson

Dancing at Lughnasa reviews

The Evening Standard

"A powerfully moving family portrait at a moment of change"

"Even if you missed all the subtext, this show would still delight in its acute depiction of family dynamics"

"It’s given a lovingly detailed revival here at the National – where the original production transferred from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – by director Josie Rourke, with a splendid ensemble cast including Justine Mitchell, Derry Girls’ Siobhán McSweeney and compelling newcomer Alison Oliver."

"True, 30-plus years on, the script’s juxtaposition of pagan liberation and austere repression in Ireland and the wider world feels slightly overdone... But otherwise, this remains a powerfully moving evocation of time, place and atmosphere."

Nick Curtis, The Evening Standard
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The Stage


"Shimmering, beautifully acted revival of a modern Irish classic that probes the mysteries of life"

"Josie Rourke’s shimmering revival is alive to every nuance of the piece, which is set over the late summer of 1936, around the time of the pagan harvest festival of Lughnasa."

"Mitchell – acid-tongued, authoritarian, secretly overwhelmed – is terrific, as is Siobhán McSweeney as big-hearted, quietly observant joker Maggie, so often an uncomplaining sponge for her sisters’ pain. But this is a true ensemble piece, crammed with eloquent detail..."

"It is a production of piercing lyricism as well as embracing warmth and wit: gorgeous."

Sam Marlowe, The Stage
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The Guardian

"An exquisite staging of Brian Friel’s evocative drama"

"There are superb performances from a cast including Siobhán McSweeney and Ardal O’Hanlon in Josie Rourke’s production"

"... Friel’s 1990 drama is an exploration of nostalgia itself rather than a reflection of it – the way we choose to reconstruct the past. It is a finely crafted memory play, beautifully realised by director Josie Rourke."

"Friel’s artful blend of nothing and everything happening at once is finely calibrated here and each movement, and facial expression, becomes meaningful. The performances are exquisite too..."

"Movement lies at the emotional heart of this play and it is orchestrated with such delicate mastery by Wayne McGregor that the stomping scene, featuring the sisters dancing with wild abandon is a shared hedonistic escape, rebellious ritual and act of worship in one."

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian
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i News

"A glorious modern classic"

"Derry Girls’ Siobhán McSweeney and Louisa Harland chat, laugh and bicker their way through this wistful revival"

"... it is this wistfully elegiac atmosphere that Brian Friel’s great modern classic Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) so tenderly encapsulates. We might grow a little restive occasionally when the action proceeds over-slowly, but the cumulative punch it packs at the end as we realise the delicate transience of what Friel has just shown us is remarkable."

"Robert Jones’s exquisite design shows off the depth and the breadth of this lovely playing space to wonderful effect..."

"Yet the beating heart of the action in Josie Rourke’s increasingly powerful production lies in scenes of deceptively uneventful domestic detail. These five women, all confronted by limited social, romantic and economic opportunities, chat, laugh, bicker and make a simple supper, in a routine that is fast running out of battery life much like the wildly unreliable radiogram in their kitchen."

"If the first half drags a little, savour the levels of Chekhovian poignancy to come."

Fiona Mountford, i News
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"Radiant revival of Brian Friel’s masterpiece about five sisters carving out their own defiant world in ’30s Ireland"

"... the writing is like music and the beginning is like the orchestra warming up. In Josie Rourke’s dreamy revival, themes, movements and motifs soon emerge and become apparent."

"In an exemplary ensemble cast, it’s difficult to really single anyone out, but there is something particularly magnetic about Alison Oliver’s Chris, who threatens to be overwhelmed by the pressure of being an unmarried mother in ‘30s Ireland but never loses her girlish vibrancy."

"... ultimately it feels like the little universe these five women have carved out matters, that it meant something to Michael and because of that it will always live on (and of course, it really has – the play we are watching in 2023 is Friel’s own memory of 1936). It’s not bliss, but it is community, safety, sisterhood warmth, and dancing. A beautiful production of a beautiful play."

Andrzej Lukowski, TimeOut
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The Times

"A handsome revival of Friel’s flawed memory play"

"... I still find the piece, even when it’s performed with conviction, as it is here, naggingly schematic and sometimes shamelessly sentimental."

"What’s easy to admire is its sense of atmosphere. In Rourke’s elegant version, you can spend much of the evening — too much, perhaps — casting an eye over Robert Jones’s bucolic set..."

"Tom Vaughan-Lawlor makes a winning Michael, alternating between man and boy as he wanders the stage. But the narration still strikes me as oddly heavy-handed. The poetry seldom takes flight. Mark Henderson’s subtle lighting lends depth, though, to a production that gives the past a shimmering golden halo."

Clive Davis, The Times
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The Telegraph

"Some blissful moments, but Friel’s subtlety goes astray"

"The National's revival of the great Irishman's nostalgic drama rings out ecstatically at times, but the Olivier's scale too often swamps it"

"... the scale of the Olivier – transformed into a bucolic paradise (by designer Robert Jones) that seems to stretch as far as Tipperary – can work against the work’s subtlety and nuance, audibility an occasional issue. The performances – from Justice Mitchell’s hardbitten, scolding eldest Kate, to Ardal O’Hanlon’s endearingly confused Jack – can’t be faulted but, like that temperamental Marconi, their full force is felt a tad too intermittently."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
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Daily Mail

"Brian Friel's Donegal memory play can quite reasonably be performed as pleasantly sentimental, but I longed for Josie Rourke's revival to lose the soft-focus and zoom in on the deep scars of its characters' private agonies."

"... Rourke's production emphasises the warm glow of nostalgia, stained by the characters' stringent Irish wit."

"Mitchell catches Kate's suppressed self-loathing as the sisters' self-appointed matriarch, while McSweeney puffs on fags and cheerfully warms her bared backside on the kitchen range."

"I was left pining for the gut-churning conflict of loss and longing that can make Friel's writing a great deal more potent."

Patrick Marmion, Daily Mail
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The Sunday Times

"I danced a jig at this classic"

"Maybe, just maybe, the high water of political correctitude at the theatre has ebbed"

"Monocle-popping news: the National Theatre has revived a classic play without politicised, behold-our-virtue casting."

"Friel’s play is a nostalgic delight..."

"Rourke’s cast is almost uniformly excellent, Justine Mitchell nicely stiff as the eldest sister, Siobhán McSweeney’s Maggie being the jester of the household and Alison Oliver imparting dreamy innocence as Michael’s mother who so worships a rogue (Tom Riley)."

"Dancing at Lughnasa will not suit thrusters in search of pulsating action, or indeed identity politics, but I left this lovely, subtle, intelligent show in a melancholy daze. When theatre does that, nothing quite compares."

Quentin Letts, The Sunday Times
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The Observer

"Brian Friel’s thoughtful 1930s drama remains absorbing"

"Josie Rourke’s sumptuous and thoughtful staging of Dancing at Lughnasa shows why this 1990 play is so loved. It is not an evening that will jolt an audience into looking at the future, perhaps not even at the present; it is likely, though, to make people consider what they have made of their pasts."

"... there is real warmth in the evocation, and a wistful tinge – 30s music including Anything Goes wafts from that wireless – but there is also harshness and strangeness."

"Robert Jones’s design immediately opens up heart and expectations, cleverly projecting both solidity and illusion."

Susannah Clapp, The Observer
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The Financial Times

"A beautiful new staging of Brian Friel’s play at the National Theatre"

"The National Theatre’s beautiful new staging of Dancing at Lughnasa opens with a literal trip down memory lane."

"Rourke’s production is beautifully pitched: even as the women tease and bicker, and coax music out of their erratic new wireless, there’s a shadow of sadness to it. We sense that this sweltering harvest time is on the cusp of something, that memory is holding it up as something both cherished and perished."

"Dance (gorgeously choreographed by Wayne McGregor) becomes a leitmotif. It suffuses the play — whether it’s the sisters’ wild burst of abandoned joy when the radio flickers into life..."

Sarah Hemming, The Financial Times
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📷 Main photo: Dancing at Lughnasa. Photo by Johan Perrson

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