Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is back in London for the first time since its 1990 premiere run. And since there is, somewhere, a newspaper cutting of the playwright presenting my Irish mother with a high-school drama prize, I thought I’d take her along, by way of a cheap Mother’s Day treat. (She twigged; but not before buying me dinner.) Set in 1930s Donegal, a time and place of economic, cultural and social wrench, this tale of five sisters wraps around several of Friel’s staple themes: dilemmas of language-and-belonging, questions of generational knowledge, of emigration, and of doubtless-unresolvable conflict with(in) one’s historical context.

Lughnasa is the harvest festival – an awkward reminder of the established Church’s desperate accommodation of ancient rites everywhere (cf. ‘putting lipstick on a pagan’) – and it represents a rare moment of cheer in the Mundy household, where, under normal circumstances, a packet of chocolate biscuits justifies a diary entry. Their one luxury is a radio, which they have named (after the inventor “Marrr-cone-eh”) and around which they cavort in a way that is more mass hysteria than Michael Flatley.

Into this gathering maelstrom steps Uncle Jack, back from Uganda on “sick leave” and evidently a little discombobulated after decades with the natives. Steeped in Swahili, he cannot find the English for “layout of the building”. Nor for that matter, can he find the door. He quotes Handel operas when he should be saying Mass (bravo!) and discomfitingly refers to his goat-slaying, polygamous African flock as “we”.

Performed in the round (I was sitting on the edge of the tarmac road, by the grass, about three feet from the Belfast kitchen sink) under the direction of Anna Mackmin, this is a neat, fluid ensemble piece.

Andrea Corr makes a convincing theatrical debut as the knocked-up naïf, Chris (devastatingly cute smile), supported by the resilient Maggie (Niamh Cusack), corporal of the household. Michelle Fairley is horribly good as the purse-lipped, tight-bunned scold (the other bun . . .), with her brittle, self-defeating convictions.

Peter McDonald plays Michael, Chris’s illegitimate son courtesy of the journeyman Welsh roué, Gerry Evans (Jo Stone-Fewings. I know, it’s not the most convincing prospect; but he does a great Leslie Phillips, down to the moustache and sleazy laugh), McDonald pulling off the tricky double booking of being both the on-stage adult narrator and the absent, past-tense child.

Dancing at Lughnasa is no comedy. But generally the Irish can’t help themselves, and their ambassadors in the crowd (men in Donegal tweed; women admiring that sink) chuckled appreciatively throughout at Friel’s mischievous turns of phrase. Aunt Kate for instance, ex-IRA: “a very proper woman”. One suspects one knows the type.

Old Vic, until May 9. Tickets: £14.50-£45. Tel. 0870 060 6628.