The current revival of Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” recently completed a successful run at Chichester and has now transferred to the Lyric Hammersmith. Mag, a mean elderly woman, is being looked after by her daughter, Maureen, an equally mean middle-aged woman who yearns to get away from the stifling and constricted life she leads looking after her demanding and manipulative mother in the isolation of a Connemara cottage. The unexpected return of an old friend, Pato, offers Maureen the chance of escape but Mag is determined to scupper her daughter’s chance of a new life, which would leave her alone and without her carer. These are two women who are deeply flawed and unable to tell each other the truth – Mag hiding the fact that she doesn’t need to rely entirely on Maureen, and Maureen with an unsettled past that has left her confused between reality and fantasy. There’s an inevitability to the conclusion, a circle of life and death, that is affecting, but not entirely surprising.
Billed as “darkly comic” and described by Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan as “funny, but also savage”, it is hard to detect the humour in a situation which centres around abuse and mental illness. The humour, such as it is, comes from references to urinary tract infections and lumpy Complan and provoke uncomfortable tittering from the audience more than genuine laughter. These moments sit oddly in what is at its core a deeply psychological tale of distress and the harm that people can inflict on each other.
There’s a fine cast of four. Ingrid Craigie makes a disturbingly credible Mag, curmudgeonly and rude, while apparently ignoring the rudeness of others towards her. Orla Fitzgerald’s Maureen is bored, frustrated with a constant edge of potential violence under her vulnerability. There’s sympathy for her situation, but also distaste at how she deals with the frustrations of her life. Mag and Maureen’s relationship might have been a love-hate one at some point but has devolved into hate-hate that can only have one outcome. Maureen’s childhood friend Ray (Kwaku Fortune) is more of a comic character, while also launching casual insults at Mag and being pivotal as the link between Pato and Maureen. Adam Best’s Pato is the central catalyst for the ensuing disaster, initially offering Maureen a way out, but this fails to transpire after Mag interferes. Best plays him as a loving, gentle man, caught up in a web of miscommunications.
The living room set is dingily oppressive, reflecting the lives within, the furnishings not updated since the 1950s. A magnificent tree visible through the window constantly threatens to destroy the house in the ongoing storms.
Occasional sound issues make parts of the dialogue hard to catch with a couple of important plot points lost in the Lyric’s deep stage and the thick Irish brogues of the cast.
Ignore the “Mrs Brown’s Boys” type attempts at humour, and this is an affecting drama that provides food for thought on how people can be trapped into stifling lives from which they can see no escape.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 6th November. Tickets are available from: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/the-beauty-queen-of-leenane/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 13th October 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★