Last Updated on October 16, 2021
Martin McDonagh’s darkly funny play The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
It was a joy to return to my local Lyric Theatre Hammersmith last night, to be back in its beautiful auditorium to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh a co-production with the Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by the Lyrics’ Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan. Martin McDonagh established his name as one of Ireland’s most exciting new playwrights with his brilliant debut play The BeautyQueen of Leenane which opened in Galway in 1996.
The play went on to successfully transfer to London’s West End and received an Olivier Award nomination for Play of the Year, going on to win four Tony Awards on Broadway. McDonagh is also the acclaimed writer and director of several multi-award-winning blockbuster films including Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Six Shooter, Missouri and In Bruges. And for theatre, he has also written the Tony Award-nominated The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Cripple of Inishmaan, and the Olivier Award-winning Best New Play, Hangmen.
This darkly funny play takes place in a tumbledown cottage on a Connemara hillside, in County Galway. The suitable dour set is designed by the newly formed company Good Teeth with dramatic lighting design by Kevin Treacy and a wispy and haunting soundtrack by Anna Clock. Together they have created an affectively poetic backdrop, with transparent screens providing atmospheric imagery and a sense of the mountainous environment beyond the cottage walls.
Ageing and manipulative Mag and her middle-aged virginal daughter Maureen are trapped in a weary and mundane domestic existence, bickering about the daily chores and with Mag endlessly complaining about having to drink lumpy Complan. Both Maureen’s sisters have left home and she feels as if she has no choice but to care for her spiteful and demanding mother Mag, who is effectively portrayed by Ingrid Craigie. Orla Fitzgerald’s tortured Maureen gives a powerful sense of a strong woman who bitterly resents her crippling encumbrance and longs for a life beyond these four walls.
A succession of disagreements, ambiguities and ambivalences keep each person wrapped in their own painful world. Although we do find out that when Maureen was a young woman working in the UK, she was cruelly bullied at work by which caused her to have a breakdown and Mag has gone on to weaponised it against her.
The claustrophobic atmosphere is broken by the arrival of the upbeat Pato, an out-of-town construction worker who Maureen meets at a local celebration for Pato’s departure to England, who after the party she brings back home, revelling in her newfound sexuality and bringing a tender touch to what has proceeded. Maureen proudly takes Pato to her bed, only too happy to flaunt him to her mother the morning after, much to Mag’s dismay.
Pato is played with a lovely gentle charm by Adam Best whose empathetic demeanour and calming male rationality acts as an emotionally centred foil between the two warring women. Maureen’s insecurities are heightened on his departure but he promises to write to her from England and with his genuine sense of integrity, makes you believe he really will. Pato later gives a powerfully moving and emotionally charged monologue which brings a glimmer of hope.
The young couple highlights the generational differences, they represent the new social Liberalism of the time whereas Mag stands for the old Ireland and its more entrenched attitudes.
As the play progresses and Maureen yearns for her escape, the toxic relationship between the two women intensifies and a bitter and vicious battle ensues, which spotlights the depth of Maureen’s mental health problems which unravel with breathtaking effect.
The combination of McDonagh’s driving narrative and Rachel O’Riordan’s assured direction creates rich layered undertones which, as the ghastly dynamic plays out allows for the dark humour to shine through and kept me gripped to the bitter end.
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Lyric Square, King Street, London W6 0QL
Until 6 November 2021
Looking for something different? We also loved The Mirror and the Light currently showing at the Gielgud Theatre, London West End