So, picture a couple sunbathing together: he’s reading, she’s sleeping, young, untried, nervous…and pregnant. Forced to leave their respective schools due to the disgrace of a child born out of wedlock, they leave a society that’s shunned them for a few hours – with this, the scene is set. Lovers:Winners follows the lives of Joe and Mag for one day only, and shows the audience just how much can happen in that space of time. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking for first-time director Jessica Campbell, and one which – with two weeks before opening night – seems already to have proved itself.
Relying on a small cast of just four, the energy amongst the two men and women is palpable as I enter the rehearsal room. They’re clearly good mates, as well as part of the “company”, something which always makes for more interesting viewing. One of Brian Friel’s less well-known plays, Lovers: Winners (1967) is the first half of a double act play, in which the second section, Losers, focuses on a different couple in a different situation. Like much of Friel’s work, this play doesn’t bring necessarily “realistic” aspects of normal conversation to the attention of the audience, choosing instead to focus on dreamy interior monologues. For this reason, casting could make or break the play, and Campbell has done a stellar job with Fen Greatley and Hannah Bowers as Joe and Mag respectively. Bowers’s fantastically booming voice accurately portrays the almost unhinged nature of Mag as she swings between absolute delight – “Joe, happiness had never been discovered till we discovered it!” –chronic depression, and a startling convincing fury. Greatley similarly conveys the frustration of a young man simply trying to get ahead in the world, combining a subtle blend of resentment and love for his fiancée. It’s important, as he commented afterwards, to “examine the real tragedy of the play…it’s definitely ironically significant that we are the “winners” here.”
Scenes in which the conversation seems to bounce from one to the other are particularly sweet, full of hyperactive, emotionally-charged hopes – the pair are careful to maintain a sense of their fundamental chemistry even when they seem ready to tear one another limb from limb. Yaroslav Walker as the male and Alice Fraser as the female narrators provide key supporting roles, serving as an eerie chorus to the ultimately tragic nature of the piece. The sensitivity and calm of their deliverance is at odds with the frenetic scenes between Mag and Joe – indeed, they develop to become almost like the tired parents constantly looking to help their wayward children.
Without giving too much away, Campbell has provided a real theatrical treat – for want of a cheesier line to end on, grab a blanket and a bottle of wine to see what’s set to be a true winner.