If I had to wager, Brian Friel wrote Lovers: Winners and Losers for Broadway. Premiered in 1967, a year after Philadelphia, Here I Come! transferred to New York, this two-part drama poked enough fun at Catholic masochism to have both sides of the Atlantic laughing.
It’s easy to imagine the sun-dappled hillside of Lovers, for instance, as a romantic and idyllic shot from the cutting room floor of The Quiet Man. Thankfully there are darker shades to the Lyric Theatre’s revival. Ciaran Bagnall’s cunning design suspends a patch of green up high, with dark water and scorched trees lurking underneath. Interceding narration by Charlie Bonner and Abigail McGibbon is serious and clear like a police report
On the grass, two teenagers study for their school exams but are inevitably distracted by what the future has in store. Joe (Thomas Finnegan) bends over his books while Mag (Ruby Campell) paces around him, desperately listing her wishes and fears. If an unplanned pregnancy seemed like the end of the world in 1960s Ireland, that’s because it was.
This fast-paced repartee seems to have had a young Jean Arthur and Cary Grant in mind, but it’s hardly plausible (Joe, a young man of the world, will reveal that his greatest happiness in life is laying eyes on an exam paper). Director Emma Jordan runs with it as screwball comedy, which Campbell and Finnegan deliver with charm and verve. But some of Friel’s schmaltziest writing is in here, whether in a heartfelt confession while a lover dozes off, or the sensational finale by way of the drama’s narration – a device found to be revelatory in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, but slipping into convenience here.
The clear winner of Lovers is Losers. Slower and more intimate in approach, this sees forty-something Andy (amiable in Bonner’s performance) arrive to woo McGibbon’s roguish Hanna. Her mother (Helena Bereen), devoutly Catholic and bedridden, sits above like a sentry, interrupting them with a bell if they stay silent for too long. Both lovers keep the rosary on the tip of their tongue (and each other).
What seems like reassuring comedy surprisingly becomes something more complex. Hanna, slipping away from Andy’s affections, is won over by her dependant mother’s manipulations, putting her romance in the ground. Bonner’s heart-rending and defeated Andy expertly captures our disappointment.
It’s hard to know what to make of the sum of Friel’s play. We might believe the love between its “winners” to be exceptional, but why cut their lives shockingly short for no other reason that forcing pathos? All’s fair in love and playwriting, one might say. I say Friel has written better stuff.
Lovers: Winners and Losers is on until 16 June 2018 at Pavilion Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.