Lovers: Winners & Losers – Lyric Theatre – Review

Lovers: Winners & Losers – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown

Until June 10th 2018

Lovers: Winners & Losers by Brian Friel gets a timely revival at the Lyric Theatre Belfast, assuredly directed by Emma Jordon, hot off the success of her Best Director gong at the Irish Theatre Awards earlier this year.

Although not performed as much as his other works, Lovers showcases Friel’s recognisable themes; the stifling nature of Catholic Ireland, the pain of lost dreams and the fluidity of time. Both pieces here play with the nature of time, telling the audience what is going to happen while showing us the present. It’s an affecting device that works well in Emma Jordan’s assured hands.

“I can’t wait for the future, Joe.” says Mag in Winners. 17 years old, pregnant and three weeks away from getting married, she is a lovely bundle of nervous energy, her constant chat interrupting boyfriend Joe as they try to study for their final exams on a hilltop above Ballymore. As the afternoon plays out, the unnamed narrators ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ reveal that the future Mag yearns for may be anything but kind.

Ruby Campbell as Mag captures that adolescent exuberance to perfection, navigating the changes in pace with a likeable ease. As Joe, Thomas Finnegan subtly embodies the problem of being a boy who has unexpectedly been forced to take on the responsibility of being a man. They are a natural and engaging pair with an easy chemistry and together they bring the dialogue-heavy first half to vivid, emotional life.

In Losers, Friel offers up love of a different kind, with the depiction of the relationship between older couple Andy and Hanna who are engaged to be married. Love has come late for them, but it is not going to come easy as their time together is constantly thwarted by Hanna’s religious, crafty, bed-bound mother (Helena Bereen) and her god-fearing neighbour Cissy (Carol Moore).

Played almost as a farce, their courtship is hilariously portrayed. Hanna’s mother is suspicious of silences coming from downstairs so Andy recites ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ as a cover for their romantic trysts. It is testament though to Charlie Bonner as Andy and Abigail McGibbon as Hanna, that ‘Losers’ maintains its emotional depth.

Bonner’s performance in particular is outstanding, rendering the subtle shifts from humour to pathos delicately and poignantly as he reminds us that, despite all the laughs, Andy and Hanna are no winners here.

Ciaran Bagnall’s striking two-tier set embodies both a hill-top and an upstairs bedroom with ease while Neil Martin’s incidental cello music creates a mood of melancholic grace.

So which is better? The loss of love over time, or the loss of the chance to ever fully realise that love? Friel doesn’t give any easy answers and nor does this production. Because there are no easy answers when men and women are trying to navigate their relationships against the backdrop of 1960s Catholic Ireland. The Church looms large in this production, from the priest who asks Joe to leave school, to the nightly ‘rosary caper’ foist upon Andy as penance for time spent with Hanna.

However, Emma Jordan is clever enough not to use the production to sermonise on the situation in Ireland today, rather emphasising the recognisable themes of insularity and frustration.  This Lovers: Winners & Losers is a heartfelt human drama – one that allows Friel’s wonderful use of language to shine through the perfectly judged performances.


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