'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' review - a haunting dark comedy that's relevant to today
Hearing the line “in England, they don’t care if you live or die” in The Beauty Queen of Leenane sent my mind whirring. As societies emerge from their chrysalis into Covid's world, receiving less government help has now become a reality for millions of families. Many across the country are now faced with looking after elderly relatives, as well as their own families, while still looking for work and a way to return to a sense of "normalcy."
And even though The Beauty Queen of Leenane is set in 1990s Connemara, this dark family comedy now has a haunting self-awareness in its post-lockdown revival. Capturing our mundane moments and our erratic emotions, the play is a testament to how we, as humans, wish for change but know that it may never arrive.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane centres around Maureen and Mag, a mother and daughter who rarely see eye-to-eye. Maureen’s a 40-year-old that’s only kissed two men in her life. Mag’s a septuagenarian who is stuck in her ways, rarely moving from her living room chair. In a Fleabag meets The IT Crowd moment, Maureen falls in love with local man Pato, and the pair, who have known each other for a long time, immediately hit it off. But Mag decides to sabotage her daughters happiness, which sets a chain of events that’ll lead to an irreversible decision.
Orla Fitzgerald as Maureen nails the exasperated loneliness of someone looking for change, and paired with Ingrid Craigie’s Dolores Umbridge-style characterisation of Mag, both actresses are able to walk the fine line of portraying a twisted relationship, even though both characters are just looking for acceptance.
It’s as if they’re trying to cover the cracks of reality by applying a coat of gloss paint. By adding a new layer, the immediate worry is gone and everything looks picture-perfect, but once the paint dries, the pain lines are deeper and the divisions begin to show. This pain becomes a vision of beauty for the audience, and it's hard to look away.
The dramatic tension is heightened by Rachel O’Riordan’s direction, accentuating the comedy and carving out dark moments through long pauses. In the silence, the rage grows, and that tension fuels the second act. But, in this new world we live in, pausing doesn’t just reflect the mother/daughter animosity. In these long pauses, it felt like I was sitting in between awkward silences on Zoom calls, unsure of who will speak or what'll happen next. Throughout Leenane, we’re encouraged to sit in these intimate pauses and reflect on ourselves, before a line about Kimberley biscuits or a door slamming makes us laugh again and we’re back smiling.
The dark, cold visuals, including an atmospheric set by Good Teeth Theatre and lighting design by Kevin Treacy, evoke intimacy, and even though the set and lighting rarely change, the design illustrates how our routines are difficult to break. So when Maureen does hurt Mag — a moment that garnered gasps around the auditorium at the performance I attended — it’s not surprising that she ends up in the seat her mother once occupied. Ultimately, in Maureen trying to break out, she wastes away as a vision of her former self, fading into a drizzling world around her.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane soaks up the collective grief of an 18-month period, trying to find strength in dysfunctionality. But as the Gaelic music lilts on the radio, there’s a tender beauty to this heartache, serving as a poignant reminder for our times.
Photo credit: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Photo by Helen Maybanks)