Winners is the first part of the two-act play, Lovers (the second is Lovers: Losers), by Northern Irish playwright, Brian Friel. Those who studied A Level English may be familiar with other works by Friel, perhaps Translations or Dancing at Lughnasa, and you can expect more of Friel’s interweaving of light and dark in this earlier play, first performed in 1967 to international acclaim.
In Winners, we meet Joe and Mag as they loll on a picnic blanket, revising for their exams like so many 17-year-olds, in school and in love. But Mag, we soon discover, is distracted by her pregnancy and the excitement of future family life with Joe. The couple discuss, distract, ignore and bicker between a sinister pair of narrators, who flesh out the story and shroud the picnic scene with a sense of foreboding. It is like watching a relationship in utero, as it probes and develops, unconscious of what lies further afield.This is the kind of play that works well as a student production, as we can focus on a few finely-honed performances, and the outdoor setting perfectly fits this garden show format. The performances are feisty and strong between the lovers, dark and controlled by the narrating chorus of two and the whole is inevitably permeated by a sense of Greek tragedy, as Friel’s script solicits.
Hannah Bowers deserves special mention for her portrayal of Mag, dominating the space with the desperate command of someone marooned on an island and clutching at the promise of her future marriage with a ferocious yet heart-breaking enthusiasm. Opposite her, Joe (Stephen Greatley) does well to counter-balance this performance; his is the tricky task of bringing in some emotional nuance to ward off a sense of theatrical bipolarity, and offset his fiancée’s extravagant outbursts. The cool, lofty narrators (Alice Fraser and Yaroslav Sky Walker) perform their choral duties with the clinical authority of a coroner’s report, yet somehow maintain a playful arch in their eyebrows, occasionally meddling with bodies and props between scenes, hinting at the humour that skirts in the periphery of Lovers.
Simplicity, surprisingly, is not always easy to pull off, and under Jessica Campbell’s direction, this is a triumph in dramatic performance.
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