Mercury Theatre Company at the Mercury Theatre Colchester
Brian Friel's memory play – now something of a classic – looks back to the summer of 1936, to family life in remotest County Donegal.
Sara Perks' design has evocative fields of wheat and poppies, with the cottage arising organically in their midst: its blacklead range, a devotional picture over it, its washing basket and its wireless – a new acquisition that year, temperamental but much used for dance music.
Five ghosts inhabit this world as the play opens. They are the Mundy sisters, spectres recalled by Chris's adult son, wandering through the warm August light he'd known as a child of seven. His narration is matter-of-fact, his interaction with the women dispassionate. Ian Kirkby gives him just the right air of slightly regretful recollection – only in his poetical closing speech does he bring heightened emotion to his role, recalling a memory where "atmosphere is more real than incident", the characters float on sweet sounds and the air is "nostalgic with the music of the 30s".
The sisters are all effectively characterized, not easy in this drab world, especially perhaps Michelle Butt's magnificent Aunt Maggie, with her Woodbines, her lisle stockings and her riddles, and Kelly Williams' prim schoolteacher Kate, disapproving of almost everything, but in one wonderful moment, caught up, despite herself in the wild dionysian dance, her feet unable to resist the rhythm from the radio. And Clare Humphry gives a touching performance as the simple "distinctive" Rose, who, with Agnes [Kristin Hutchinson] will leave the village for London, a hopeless life and a lonely death. Nadia Morgan plays Michael's mother, unable to resist the charms of his absent father.
The men in this story have lived much more interesting lives – they have escaped, done their own thing and found fulfilment of a kind, if not approval from the womenfolk.
Tomos James is excellent as Gerry, dancing instructor and salesman for Minerva gramophones, the father of the love-child who watches from behind a tree and sees the future.
Father Jack, "leper priest", brother to the girls, back home from Uganda with malaria and amnesia, is in the safe hands of Ignatius Anthony. As he recovers his strength and his English vocabulary, it becomes clear that he has gone native, recounting pagan ceremonies, extolling the virtues of the polygamous life.
And these heathen practices are neatly paralleled with the pre-Christian Lughnasa, the harvest ritual that gives this semi-autobiographical piece its title.
Sue Lefton's marvellously atmospheric production skilfully draws us in to this month in the Celtic country, when love is in the heavy summer air, and memories of carefree youth are tainted by the knowledge that disappointment is inevitable, and darker depths lurk beneath the surface.
production photograph: Robert Day