Writer: Martin McDonagh
Director: Mark Babych
Designer: Sara Perks
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first, and best known, of a trilogy of plays set in Leenane in Connemara and written in the 1990s. Since then Martin McDonagh has made his name even further West with such films as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. As revealed in this early play, his is a slippery, indefinable talent, depending on shifts of tone that you don’t notice until they’ve happened. Mark Babych’s devoted production seems to just miss this magic, but is a stimulating, amusing and uneasy piece of theatre.
McDonagh’s work is often defined as tragedy mixed with black comedy. That’s fair enough, but it’s not the whole answer. A fair bit of the comedy is nice and silly (think Father Ted) and the tragedy isn’t on the heroic scale, but born out of human frustration and sheer nastiness. The problems of tone mean that desperately vicious scenes can be greeted with the odd laugh or two, not out of embarrassment, but because some audience members think they’re meant to be funny. Maybe they are – as we said, McDonagh’s is a slippery talent.
This is not the place for plot spoilers, so the less said about the vicious (and still quite often funny) second half the better. Maureen is a 40-year-old spinster who has been kissed by two men in her life, two too many for a “very young girl”, according to her mother Mag. They live together in mutual recrimination, initially based on such apparently harmless matters as the inertly chair-bound Mags’ demands for this and that and Maureen’s revenge by serving her lumpy Complan.
When a dopy local youth Ray Dooley brings an invitation to a farewell party for his brother Pato returning to England, the depth of Mags’ resentment of her daughter shows in her burning the note he leaves. Maureen finds out anyway, goes to the party in her new little black dress and brings Pato back to the cottage for a night of (possibly) consummated passion. In the second half the mutually destructive behaviour of Maureen and Mags moves way beyond the sit-com exchanges of the opening.
The production works hard to suggest that this is anything but a jolly mother-and-daughter-falling-out romp. Sara Perks’ excellent set goes for the grimly real in the hints of the thick stone cottage walls around the well-chosen detail of the old-fashioned kitchen/living room. Jess Addinall’s lighting helps to emphasise the rain streaming down and Adam McCready’s sound brings the wail of the winds (and, quite possibly, banshees) to the cottage.
The touch of over-emphasis is also there in the performance of Siobhan O’Kelly as Maureen, accomplished, powerful, but a touch too theatrical to be really moving. Similarly, Laurence Pybus (Ray) is very funny, but self-consciously so. Nicholas Boulton is perfectly natural as Pato, whose desire for Maureen is matched by his bemusement at her intentions, and he does the key letter speech beautifully. And Maggie McCarthy as Mag is terrific, ensconced in her chair like a latter-day Dandy Nichols in Till Death do us Part, malicious and mischievous, with a perverse glee every time her comfort wins out over Maureen’s wishes.
The production, jointly with Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, is a fine, but not perfect, introduction to a play that will tempt and trouble directors for many years to come.
Runs until October 26, 2019 | Image: Contributed