Mid-way through Lovers at Versailles is a scene where the play’s main character, Anna (Lucia Bee), must choose between her family and the love of her life. In the tense scene Anna vocalises her hopes and fears about the consequences of the decision while her mother (Lyndy Fox) pulls off an outrageous case of emotional blackmail. It is this difficult choice, between family ties and the need to live your own life, that Bernard Farrell’s play explores.
The story, ably performed by Centenary Theatre Group, is set in middle-class suburban Dublin and centres around Anna and her typically atypical family.
Anna’s sister (Nicole Hodgson) is constantly telling her she’ll never meet a man, all the while smugly proclaiming the wonders of her obnoxious husband (David Astley); Anna’s mother is more than keen to let the entire family know she is not that happy with her lot in life; and Anna’s father (Maurice McAnany), who appears only in flashbacks, is unappreciated by all save Anna and very aware that he is slowly losing his memory.
The play switches between present and past as Anna reminisces about a lost love, David (John Bennetto), who had asked for her hand in marriage long ago. There are many amusing scenes as a single and lonely Anna deals with an insane family who use guilt to keep her trapped in the family house.
The title of the play refers to a misheard line from the song “Strangers in the Night”. David and Anna’s father hear the line “lovers at first sight” as “lovers at Versailles”. This theme of misunderstandings, especially between family, is also explored in the play.
The characterisation is well done and rather than inspiring feelings of hatred, most of Anna’s relatives irritate in the same manner real relatives tend to irritate.
David Astley plays the self-centred know-it-all husband Tony well. He manages to infuse a combination of ignorance and arrogance into his performance that make his scenes amusingly cringe-worthy. Mr Astley also has the funniest lines, making it easy to love to hate his Tony. After attending a funeral he remarks, “That’s the great thing about funerals, you get to see all your old mates again.”
In her impressive portrayal of Anna’s bossy sister Isobel, Nicole Hodgson creates a woman who is both enamoured and frustrated by her dopey husband. Maurice McAnany, who plays the father of the family, Stephen, manages to play a father who is by turns wise and forgetful. Lyndy Fox plays the family matriarch with an appropriate level of venom and raised voice. Her Clara is an angry woman whose fustration is clear to all. John Bennetto as Anna’s lost love David gives an intense performance that well captures David’s longing for Anna.
However it is Lucia Bee as Anna who steals the show. Her restrained portrayal of the regret Anna feels over losing David, not to mention the obligation she feels towards her crazy family, is palpable throughout.
The production is well directed by Isabel Telford, particularly the flashback scenes, which convey a feeling of nostalgia, sadness and humour. The props and set also provide the appropriate middle-class atmosphere to events.
The cast is let down, however, by the poorly scripted ending. After spending time and effort building up realistic characters, it feels as though Mr Farrell has just tacked on a cliched soap opera ending. It’s a simplistic let-down to a play that is realistic until that point.
Despite the weak ending, Lovers at Versailles is an enjoyable, funny and touching play that has some astute observations of family politics and the power of a guilt-inspiring mother.