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Lovers: Winners and Losers review at Lyric Theatre, Belfast – ‘meticulous direction’

Ruby Campbell and Thomas Finnegan in Lovers at Lyric Theatre, Belfast. Photo: Steffan Hill
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Fifty years ago, at the start of his writing career, Brian Friel was already breaking the mould in dramatic experimentation and structural daring. In Lovers: Winners and Losers he constructs two unconnected plays under an ironic title.

The two couples may indeed be lovers but it is hard to fathom how either could be judged winners. The first relationship is a brief, brilliant blaze between teenagers Joe (Thomas Finnegan) and Mag (Ruby Campbell), walking blindly into premature marriage after an accidental pregnancy.

They meet on a sunny hilltop to swot for their exams and plan their future. Designer Ciaran Bagnall perches them precariously high above a glowering lake and stricken trees, beside which, like a pair of soothsayers, sit an unnamed Man (Charlie Bonner) and Woman (Abigail McGibbon), unemotionally narrating the grim details of the ensuing tragedy.

In the second play, Friel switches to uneasy dark comedy and a different generation. Andy (Bonner) and Hanna (McGibbon) are lonely, middle aged people whose ingeniously disguised, pathetically clumsy sexual fumblings are constantly interrupted by her tyrannical mother (Helena Bereen), listening in intently from her upstairs bed.

The pattern of their marriage is blighted early on by spite, religious devotion, filial duty and the barely disguised disapproval of a sanctimonious friend (Carol Moore). In his resigned, self-imposed isolation, only a dark void of loneliness beckons to Andy at the end of a pair of binoculars.

Performances are faultlessly truthful and Emma Jordan’s meticulous direction, together with Neil Martin’s plaintive cello score, crafts a complete, deeply satisfying theatrical experience.

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Brian Friel’s sublime writing and dramatic daring are celebrated in a potent revival