Wednesday 15 August 2018

Couples stand the test of time

  • Lovers: Winners & Losers, Lyric Theatre, Belfast
A scene from Lovers: Winners & Losers
A scene from Lovers: Winners & Losers

Katy Hayes

This early Brian Friel play rarely receives a professional production. First seen in 1967 at the Gate Theatre, it went to Broadway the following year and was nominated for three Tony Awards including for best play, and for Anna Manahan as best actress in a featured role.

It is essentially two one-act plays that rub up against each other thematically. The first, 'Winners', deals with a pair of 17-year-olds from fictional Ballymore in Northern Ireland. Mag (Ruby Campbell) and Joe (Thomas Finnegan) are preparing to sit their GCSE exams. They have both been kicked out of school as a result of her pregnancy, and they are due to be married in three weeks. They have retreated to the hilltop of Ardnageeha to study, he more diligently applied to the books than she. Small tensions arising from their hastily arranged marriage derail their mood from time to time, but they are full of the wild exuberance of youth. A documentary-style narration is provided by two 'Commentators' who give backstory about the young people's family and details of a later tragedy.

The second half presents a recently married middle-aged couple who are coping with the problem of the wife's difficult mother who is a thorn in their intimacy. Andy (Charlie Bonner) and Hanna (Abigail McGibbon) intend to move away from the "aul' bitch" but their nerve falters and they finally fail to make the break, at a deep cost to their relationship. These are the 'Losers' of the subtitle.

Director Emma Jordan steers this finely-tuned production with great delicacy. Campbell and Finnegan brilliantly create the world of late teenagers, their class difference subtly conveyed. Bonner and McGibbon play the coping couple, subjected to nightly rosaries, with a terrible comedy; the laughter underpinned with a deep sadness. Designer Ciaran Bagnall creates a superb set, building from Friel's suggestion that the mountain-top be a "large pentagonal platform". It has a mysterious watery underworld beneath; the young people's sunny hilltop is on precarious ground. This basic shape transforms into the more prosaic domestic upstairs and downstairs of the second half, with the altar to St Philomena to the fore.

Executive Producer Jimmy Fay continues with his astute programming of the Lyric with this integral part of the Lyric's celebration of 50 years in operation.

The dilemmas still chime with a modern audience: 'Losers' feels like a forecast of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a play for which Anna Manahan won a Tony Award. Given the great plays that came later, 'Lovers' is now generally seen as a minor Friel work, but it is a beautifully cut minor jewel all the same. Tours to the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire from June 12 - 16.

Book it now

1  THE ROSE OF JERICHO

Theatre Upstairs, Dublin  May 28 - June 9

A one-man show about a British soldier from an Irish background; after a difficult childhood he finds fresh disillusion in the deserts of Iraq. Irish premier of this new play by Alex Martinez, performed by Kevin Hely.

2 THE GOOD FATHER

Everyman, Cork May 28

Following a one-night stand, snobbish lawyer Jane and working-class Tim confront the prospect of an unexpected pregnancy. Christian O'Reilly's clever two-hander gets a smart revival by Rise Productions, directed by Aonghus Óg McAnally.

3 BELONGING

The New Theatre, Dublin May 30 & 31

This Welsh production, written by Karin Diamond, deals with two families coping with the effects of dementia on a loved-one. The show is having its first international outing as part of the Bealtaine Festival, celebrating the arts and older people.

Deconstructing the Dane

Pan Pan Theatre have been leaders in the field of inventive reimagination of classic works, juxtaposing original texts with academic interpretation, brilliant design and destabilising performances; they have been profoundly influential in the Irish theatre scene.

In this riff on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, the first half presents three actors auditioning for the part of Hamlet: Anthony Morris, Conor Madden and Fionn Walton. Morris is mousy, Madden is hilarious, Walton is serious.

'Director' Gavin Quinn directs proceedings on stage. There are various bits of the original play used in the auditions and some scenes take on a life of their own. Andrew Bennett does a beautiful version of the ghost of Hamlet's father, drifting through the auditorium with a table lamp. The audience is asked to vote for who they would like to see playing Hamlet by going on stage and standing behind their choice. Conor Madden wins the popular vote. This is all hugely entertaining.

Things slow down considerably in the second half, which is an abridged version of Shakespeare's play. The design by Aedín Cosgrove is terrific, with dustbins and skulls and a giant picture of a Great Dane on the back wall. There are excellent episodes; the gravedigger does a heavy-metal routine, all three potential Hamlets play Hamlet at the same time. But in departing so thoroughly from the emotional through-lines of the play, the lengthy Ophelia scene makes no sense. The second half is about 10 minutes longer than the first, and it feels much longer still. All that fizzing brilliance in ideas and design, and finally not a lot of satisfaction to show for it.

When academic Amanda Piesse returns at the end to deliver a snatch of biographical detail about Shakespeare's father and son, it is a relief to encounter something with emotional coherence.

But when the academic on the stage is the person with most emotional appeal, you know you've missed a fundamental trick, despite all the clever trickery.

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