The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith)

Posted: October 14, 2021 in Theatre
Photo: Helen Maybanks

Writer: Martin McDonagh

Director: Rachel O’Riordan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Surveying the hugely successful career in theatre and cinema of London-born writer/director Martin McDonagh, two features stand out: his fascination with his Irish family heritage and his gift for black comedy. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, dating from 1996, was his first major success and it is also the first in a trilogy of plays set on Ireland’s west coast. In this seemingly tranquil, remote setting, there are dark undercurrents which eventually burst through to the surface, foretelling the style that was to become McDonagh’s trademark.

This revival, directed by the Lyric Theatre’s Artistic Director, Rachel O’Riordan, is co-produced with Chichester Festival Theatre, where it first appeared. Maureen is a 40-year-old virgin, played by Orla Fitzgerald as a rebellious but over-cautious woman, frustrated by the knowledge that many of life’s best opportunities may have already passed her by. She has a tentative suitor in Pato (Adam Best), who has set his sights on a new life for hem both in London and then the United States.

Maureen’s biggest problem is escaping the clutches of her selfish, scheming mother, Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie as a sharp-tongued and spiteful harridan. She is more preoccupied with moaning about her urinary infection and finding lumps in her Complan than with caring about her daughter’s happiness. The jocular village postman, 

Ray (Kwaku Fortune), pops in daily and hears her barbs.

McDonagh sets up a female version of Steptoe and Son. The dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship are the same; both are repulsed by the ways of the other, but both are aware that they could be tied together inseparably. As the writer explores the boundaries of human tolerance, it becomes increasingly clear that each character, while acting to further her own ends, is equally motivated by spiting the other. The women attack with savage wit, but there comes a point in O’Riordan’s production when they can no longer be seen as comic characters. More sinister forces come into play.

All the action takes place in the women’s colourful but very basic living space, designed by Good Teeth Theatre. An air of foreboding hangs over a generally low-key production, which explodes into fiery life at key moments. This is a competent revival at every level, but it does not really stamp a mark of its own on the play. The chief interest comes from tracing back how one of the most distinctive dramatists of the modern era got started.

Performance date: 13 October 2021

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