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The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Queen’s Theatre | Review

Maggie McCarthy and Siobhan O'Kelly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, photo by Ian Hodgson.
Maggie McCarthy and Siobhan O’Kelly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, photo by Ian Hodgson.

Well, that was different,” was the exit poll verdict from a fellow theatregoer as we filed out of the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch into what was still a drizzly autumnal day. It seemed to go well with the apparently near-permanent rainy conditions in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, set in Leenane, County Galway, Ireland. I wondered, given the epistolary nature of communications between certain characters, if this was a play set at least a couple of generations ago. The only telephone that rang was one in the audience. It is only when Ray Dooley (Laurence Pybus) is glued to the television in the home of Mag (Maggie McCarthy) and Maureen Folan (Siobhan O’Kelly) watching ‘A Country Practice’ that it became clear that the show is likely to be set in the late 1980s or early 1990s – that is, within living memory.

There are some cheery older people with a positive outlook on life. Sometimes they even make good theatre, like Abuela Claudia in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights. Not here, though – Mag is unhappy about ‘lumps’ in her Complan and miscellaneous other negligible problems, all of which must be addressed by long-suffering daughter Maureen. When an invitation comes through for the pair to attend a farewell party for an off-stage character (Ray’s uncle), Mag destroys the invite, but Maureen finds out directly from Ray, whom she bumped into while she was out of the house. Mag, having denied all knowledge of any callers or invitations, is called out by Maureen.

This seems like a run of the mill family issue of no major consequence, but it is a springboard to uncovering further family issues. I must admit I hadn’t even heard of Complan before watching this show (a widely available nutritional supplement that claims it contains 26 vitamins and minerals) – Mag has it every day. Completing the set of on-stage characters is Ray’s older brother Pato (Nicholas Boulton), a construction worker who goes wherever he can find the work, which is predominantly London, though he doesn’t like it, because of prevailing attitudes towards the Irish at the time. By this point, signs saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ may have disappeared from hotel windows, but pockets of xenophobia remained (as arguably, they still do even today).

Audience reactions to the narrative are worth noting – your reviewer was rather displeased to see the overnight contents of a bedpan going into the kitchen sink (don’t ask), and then the show’s critical incident (a little too gruesome and in any event too much of a giveaway to describe here) retains a shock factor some years after the show was first produced in 1996. It becomes increasingly palpable how much Maureen wants to make a clean break for herself, but the ending is ambiguous as to whether her future lies elsewhere or merely following in her mother’s footsteps.

The power play between mother and daughter is fascinating to watch, particularly in the hands of a cast as strong as this. The play also makes forays into examining the national identity of Ireland – without being preachy – making the production relevant at a macro level at a time when Britain is itself continuing to consider its future relationship with Europe. Amusing and poignant in equal measure, this production provides its audiences with a sharp, detailed and observant portrayal on the various conflicts life throws at us.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Sometimes I dream… of anything… anything other than this…
Leenane, County Galway, 1990.
In a remote cottage in the mountains of Connemara, 40 year old Maureen Folan lives with her manipulative and possessive mother, Mag.

Trapped together in a poisonous cycle of daily battles and with endless rain driving at the walls, Maureen dreams of escape. When a chance for happiness arrives in the form of unexpected suitor Pato Dooley, she dares to hope…
But Mag has other ideas and sets in motion a chain of events that build to a terrifying climax…

Hauntingly beautiful and blisteringly funny, this dark comedy thriller from the writer of the Golden Globe and Oscar winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and In Bruges is guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat.

The cast includes Nicholas Boulton (Imperium, RSC and West End), Maggie McCarthy (Children of the Sun, National Theatre), Siobhan O’Kelly (All My Sons, Watermill Theatre) and Laurence Pybus (Death of a Salesman, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh
Director Mark Babych
Assistant Director Maureen Lennon
Set and Costume Design Sara Perks
Lighting Design Jessica Addinall
Sound Design and Composition Adam McCready
Casting Director Anji Carroll CDG

Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch
30 Oct – 16 Nov 2019
https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whats-on/

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