Review: Lovers: Winners & Losers

Exceptionally crafted and poignantly acted, Brian Friel's Lovers: Winners & Losers, brought to life on the Lyric Theatre stage by director Emma Jordan and her talented cast and crew, is a consistently compelling play, or rather set of plays, about contradictory yet complementary couplings.

There's a lot going in Lovers, the central question being: is marriage about love, or obligation? Are unions defined by passion and happiness, or circumstance and religion?

Friel's plays, penned in 1967, appear to verge towards the cynical and downbeat in addressing their timeless theme. Even the nature of Neil Martin's score is melancholic.
But the works nonetheless contains enough heart and hope to counter the bleakness in a bittersweet symphony with plenty of verve. (Sorry!)

In a way, it's like another 1967 work, The Graduate: equally well directed, and equally observant in its examination of class and relationships, but minus the unfortunate detour into shallow melodrama that almost derailed Mike Nichols' classic.

Winners opens with actors Abigail McGibbon and Charlie Bonner narrating the tragic story of departed teenage couple Mag (Ruby Campbell, revelatory) and Joe (Thomas Finnegan, equally impressive). In alternating accordingly between recollections and the real-time conversations of young Lovers forced into wedded “bliss” by the circumstance of an impending new arrival, the play is both retrospective and edgy.

The couple's place on a slanted hilltop above three trees and a lake, masterfully designed by Ciaran Bagnall, epitomises “life on the edge”. Cutting scruffy, even nerdy, figures while they study for exams, Mag and Joe's exchanges are experimentally playful, sometimes hilarious, and more than a little tense.
At one point dangling her hair over the edge while in a Christ-like pose (foreshadowing martyrdom?), and relentlessly motor-mouthing like a very young, very caffeinated, female version of Sir Humphrey Appleby without the politicospeak, Mag is reckless, but superficially so.

It's all an exercise in seeking attention from Joe, a youngster skilled in funny mimicry but seemingly fearful of the routineness of inescapable domestication that neither he nor Mag are ready for. She thinks he is selfish, cold and conceited for not listening to her - he believes she is equally so for talking!

The tears and fiery arguments that ultimately emerge from this precarious union on this equally precarious slope are devastating - as is their eventual fate.
Less energetic, but just as funny and unsettling, is Losers, which trades the effect of youthful angst and premature fear of the unknown for midlife crisis and persistent weariness of the already known.

McGibbon and Bonner, each a commanding presence, return as Hanna and Andy, a married couple whose struggle to intimately connect has always been, and still is, persistently hampered by the presence of Hanna's demanding mother (Helena Bereen).

With Bagnall's set amended during the interval to present an upstairs bedroom for Hanna’s mother and a downstairs living room for the couple, Losers effectively contrasts the inner desire for genuine love of the familial or intimate kind with the outer desire for needs to be met.

The general intolerance and discomfort that permeates the atmosphere of this dark but amusing play seems to be less between Hanna and Andy themselves and more aimed at those around them, like devotedly religious spinster Cissy (Carol Moore).

It would be easy to reduce the play to a middle-aged family farce, with the mother an expy of 'Allo 'Allo's Madame Fanny, but Jordan and the cast avoid this trap, opening our eyes into what really makes these people tick - and why such bitterness has built up among them.
It is left for the audience to decide who are the real “winners” and “losers” – or if, indeed, there is anything to be won and lost at all from unions like these.

Simon Fallaha

Lovers: Winners & Losers ran at Belfast's Lyric Theatre from May 12 - June 10.

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