The Beauty Queen of Leenane
“This is really, really depressing. But a wonderful play” said a woman sitting behind me to her friend before the start of this play. She had obviously seen it before – maybe the last time it was on at the Young Vic in the summer of 2010. I didn't catch it then, so I was intrigued to see if my neighbour's comments were accurate.
The setting, brilliantly conceived by designer Ultz, is certainly about as depressing as you can get. There is just a living room with a door at one side and a kitchen sink at the other, and right at the back of the room, a black range sits ominously, smouldering with foreboding. The walls are all crumbling plaster and haven't seen a lick of paint in several generations. The main door to the outside world has cracks that icy gales would blast through in the winter. And large sheets of plastic are stretched over the sides of the auditorium with rain pouring down them.
In effect, this is a mother and daughter story. Mag is 70 and sits in her rocking chair most of the day while her daughter skivvies for her. Mag exists on a diet of porridge, Complan (a nutritional supplement made with hot water) and shortbread fingers, with the odd cup of tea to wash it all down. Her Complan has to be stirred to get rid of the lumps which she detests. Maureen is around 40 and tells us she has been caring for Mag for 20 years. Maureen has only ever kissed two men in her life – and that is two too many as far as Mag is concerned. Initially, the snapshot we get of the relationship between mother and daughter, is that Mag is domineering and self-centred, and our sympathy builds for Maureen who we see as little more than an over-worked servant. But even just a few minutes into the story, we begin to see another side of Maureen as she forces her mother to drink lumpy Complan because she's burnt a message inviting Maureen out for the night. As the story unfolds, the relationship is not all that we first imagined.
An enormously impressive cast of just four bring to life this bleak glimpse of life in County Galway in the West of Ireland. Mag Folan is brilliantly described by Rosaleen Linehan. In particular her facial expressions are a real joy to watch, for example when Pato enters after spending the night with Maureen and says “Aren't we all adults now?”. Ms Linehan's exceptional timing is combined with a crystal-clear understanding of Mag and her motives. Derbhle Crotty is also excellent as the long-suffering, nervy Maureen, subtly illustrating the character's underlying mental state. Frank Laverty is the honest and sensible Pato, and Johnny Ward is his lively younger brother, Ray.
So, just how depressing is this play? Well there are depressing aspects such as the setting and the routine inherent in the situation. But there's plenty of humour as well, thanks to a deftly-written, darkly poignant script by Martin McDonagh which sets the mundane against the tragically horrific. And that has interesting consequences - almost as fascinating as the engrossing performances are the reactions from members of the audience. For example, when Mag pours the contents of her chamber pot into the kitchen sink a huge, audible wave of revulsion swept around the spectators.
First produced in 1996, 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' has since gone on to garner a clutch of awards and was nominated for 6 Tony Awards thanks to a run in New York in 1998. And that is hardly surprising because, as the woman behind me in the audience rightly concluded, it is a wonderful play, even though it harbours grim and shocking aspects. I am just sorry I missed it the first time round, as it is certainly deserves a second viewing.
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"What feels distinctive is McDonagh's gift for extended gags, seemingly innocuous scraps of dialogue building up to savagely ironic punchlines, and sly, sadistic details that are unnecessary, appalling, yet curiously entertaining."
Maddy Costa for The Guardian
"Gloriously funny, near-flawless revival ."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Diabolically effective piece of theatre."
Paul Taylor for The Independent