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The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Ingrid Craigie, Orla Fitzgerald in THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE. Photo Helen Maybanks.
Ingrid Craigie, Orla Fitzgerald in THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE. Photo Helen Maybanks.

Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play “The Beauty Queen Of Leenane having won both an Olivier and a Tony for Play OF The Year and Best Play respectively, has become a theatrical classic and its revival at the Lyric Hammersmith couldn’t be timelier with its themes of loneliness, isolation, mental health issues and primary care.

Set in a grubby, unkempt, run-down house on a hill in the Irish village of Leenane in Connemara, when the play opens, we see 70-year-old Meg sitting in her rocking chair, keeping warm by the stove as it’s a black and windswept night outside. She’s soon joined by daughter Maureen who is her carer and judging by the early exchanges, the pair who are stuck with each other in semi-isolation, don’t get on, bickering constantly about the minutiae of life such as whether Meg’s Complan drink is too lumpy or whether she’s eaten her porridge. Maureen is also disgusted by Meg’s daily habit of emptying her wee filled potty into the sink. At times the two of them sound like a gender-swapped Albert and Harold Steptoe as they argue and moan at each other with the child desperate to get away but deep down knowing that whilst their parent is alive, they’re trapped in a vicious spiral of love and hate.

Soon the young Ray Dooley arrives with an invitation for Maureen to attend a farewell party for Ray’s uncle who’s going back to Boston. Meg doesn’t want Maureen to leave the house and destroys the piece of paper with the details on it but Maureen finds out anyway and goes to the party where she meets Ray’s older brother Pato which sets off a chain of events that would destroy everyone it touches.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is a sombre, dark piece of writing which is typical of McDonagh’s work and he went on to write two other works in the Leenane Trilogy, Hangmen and A Very, Very Dark Matter none of which are exactly a barrel of laughs although they do have moments of humour in them as does The Beauty Queen Of Leenane. The characters are superbly drawn with lots of layers and you get to understand why they act as they do. Ingrid Craigie is superb as the controlling and manipulative Meg.

Orla Fitzgerald who plays Maureen gets the audience’s sympathy in the first act but as the story evolves, we realise that there’s a lot going on under the surface and she’s not all she seems. Adam Best plays Pato Dooley who Maureen brings back from the party to spend the night with her. His monologue at the start of act two is beautifully acted and he brings a real pathos and humanity to it. Kwaku Fortune plays Pato’s younger brother Ray but at times he speaks too quickly which allied to his thick Irish brogue makes it difficult to hear what he’s saying. As he’s pivotal to the plot, this is a bit of a problem; the character needs a lot of nervous energy but Fortune’s delivery was just a little too frantic.

Rachel O’Riordan’s direction is perfect giving the actors space to breathe with silences and pauses that also give the audience a respite from the tension. The set is a triumph from Good Teeth Theatre, a new design team who are graduates from UAL Wimbledon College of Art and should be congratulated on their work. There’s also some spooky, horror film style music from Anna Clock who also did the excellent sound design.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is not a comfortable evening at the theatre – McDonagh doesn’t do comfortable – but it’s a wonderfully constructed and superbly written piece of drama. There’s a big moment in act two which is telegraphed – although there were some gasps from some of the audience so maybe it wasn’t that obvious – but it’s followed up with a couple of shocking moments that made the audience jump and were definitely not telegraphed. The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is McDonagh at his best and the performances are of the highest quality from some of Ireland’s finest actors. It may not be a comfortable piece of theatre but at the moment, the world’s not a very comfortable place.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

In the mountains of Connemara, County Galway, Maureen Folan – a plain, lonely woman, tied to her manipulative and ageing mother, Mag – comes alive at her first and possibly last prospect of a new life. But Mag has other ideas; and her interference sets in motion a train of events that leads inexorably towards the play’s breathtaking conclusion.

Starring: Adam Best as Pato’ Ingrid Craigie as Mag’ Orla Fitzgerald as Maureen, and Kwaku Fortune as Ray.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is directed by Rachel O’Riordan, designed by Good Teeth Theatre (Dumb Waiter – Hampstead; The Winter’s Tale – Globe), lighting design by Kevin Treacy (A Doll’s House – Lyric; Killology – Royal Court), music and sound design by Anna Clock (Crave – CFT; Inside – Orange Tree), fight direction by Kev McCurdy (Les Misérables – Sondheim & UK Tour; Cinderella – Gillian Lynne Theatre), and casting by Sam Stevenson (BBC’s Emma; Home I’m Darling – NT).

A Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre Co-Production
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Martin McDonagh
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Tickets

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