A hundred years ago the sight of the five Mundy sisters wailing like banshees and leaping around the kitchen table in wild abandon would probably have got them condemned as witches.
In fact the only member of the family who has “gone native” is the wildly eccentric Father Jack, their missionary brother, who returns after a lifetime in Africa suffering from malaria.
We get to spend the summer with the Mundys in Brian Friel’s charming Dancing At Lughnasa which opened at the Royal & Derngate last night.
The story takes place over the summer of 1936 in a rural backwater in County Donegal. Marriage and men have pretty much passed by the adult sisters with the exception of Christina who, and it’s surprising how well it’s taken, has a bastard son with a wastrel and chancer called Gerry Evans.
Evens (a devilishly roguish performance by Milo Twomey) drops by on the occasional visit to fill the girl and her seven-year-old son with hopes and dreams that will never be realised.
It’s about the only excitement they get as the women struggle to make a life for themselves with next to nothing coming in.
This is the boy’s remembrances of that summer. It’s a story that exposes the harsh realities of 1930s rural Irish life seen through the eyes of a boy and his family.
Michael, played throughout by the adult Colm Gormley, narrates in a soft Irish lilt, to an audience who could be sitting around a peat fire or propping up a Dublin bar listening to the tale.
Dancing At Lughnasa is slow-paced with wonderfully understated performances that drift along, much like the family’s lives, with momentary outbursts of emotion. There’s an underlying frustration and resentment at their situation and their one chance of gaiety – a night at a village dance – is snubbed out by the eldest sister, Kate, who deems that it would be improper for women of their age to be seen dancing.
Sarah Corbett plays the youngest Mundy, Rose, with wide-eyed innocence. Rose isn’t the full shilling and the rest of the girls are highly protective of her, but Corbett brings out her childish humour without giving us a village idiot.
The quietly stoic Agnes (Grainne Keenan) and her are the family drudges, eking out a pittance knitting woollen gloves; Christina (Zoe Rainey) lives for visits from her errant lover while the eldest, teacher Kate (Michele Moran) must be both mother and father to the clan.
Kate is a physically imposing figure, towering over the other women, and she uses her height to good effect to browbeat the family into line and steer them through the hardships.
Maggie (Caroline Lennon) is the joker of the pack, always trying to make the best of a bad situation.
The drama could do with a bit more Irish humour. Christopher Saul’s Father Jack spins a few wild tales, and Maggie’s awful jokes and riddles play their part, but it’s not enough to lighten the gloom that has descended on to the family. There’s very little hope and happiness in the Mundy household.
Running on the Royal stage until June 15. For tickets call the box office 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk