Are Martin McDonagh plays like buses? You don’t see any for ages, yet within the space of a few months we’ve seen The Cripple of Inishmaan and now The Beauty Queen of Leenane, currently playing at the atmospheric little Studio theatre at the Curve in Leicester. Like “Inishmaan”, the “Beauty Queen” is a stunningly written, tightly constructed, highly dramatic piece; perhaps not quite a funny as the former, but a whole lot darker too.
It first appeared in the mid-1990s, set in more or less contemporary County Galway, in the impoverished house of 70 year old Mags and her downtrodden and anger-ridden daughter Maureen, who at the age of 40 has just waited on her mother hand and foot, with no thanks for it and no life as a result. You guess that every attempt that Maureen has ever made to gain some independence has been ruthlessly quashed by her vicious, selfish mother. So when Mags discovers that construction worker Pato, currently working in London, is returning to Leenane for the weekend, she does her best to make sure that Maureen doesn’t hear about it. However, that plan goes astray, Maureen meets Pato, and thus starts a chain of events that ends in tragedy. No more plot details – if you haven’t seen the play, the surprises up Mr McDonagh’s sleeve are well worth concealing.
This is a riveting co-production between the Curve and the Mercury Theatre Colchester, (just like the fantastic Hired Man earlier this year), directed by the Curve’s Artistic Director Paul Kerryson with great feeling for both the tenderness and savageness of the plot. Juliet Shillingford’s set conveys the poverty of Galway twenty years ago with great attention to detail – I loved the cooking range at the back of the set, the 70s/80s style kettle and telephone, the miserable television, the basic radio set. To bring the hostile environment outside into firm focus for the audience, when it rains in Leenane, it rains on stage too – Mrs Chrisparkle and I got a little damp in the front row. It’s uncomfortable, disconcerting, and gives you a very acute sense of reality.
The cast of four hold your attention throughout, each of them giving a fantastic performance. Standing out magnificently is Michele Moran as Maureen, whom we really enjoyed earlier in the year in Dancing at Lughnasa, and who conveys all the character’s pent up emotions with incredible force. The angry victim, the downtrodden drudge, the coquettish virgin, the irritating show-off, the unhinged sufferer, the desperate loner are all aspects of the character that Miss Moran absolutely gets and portrays brilliantly. She’s spectacular in the role, and spectacularly terrifying in many ways too.
Nora Connolly is the despicable Mags; one can often feel sympathy for a little old lady eking out her final years in loneliness and sadness – but not this little old lady. Manipulative and cruel, the things she does on stage actually make the audience gasp with horror. Nora Connolly makes her irredeemably unpleasant character completely come alive – no pantomime villain this, she is a very real person, and it’s a superb performance.
We really enjoyed Andrew Macklin as Pato’s brother Ray; short tempered, not overly intelligent, holding a grudge, and nicely conveying the character’s own mental hang-ups. He speaks his words as though each line is a dagger wound. His second act scene with Maureen was very suspenseful – you kept on thinking that one of them was going to murder the other, but who would it be…? And amongst this nervous-making threesome is Stephen Hogan’s Pato, a refreshingly open, normal bloke who gets caught up in the battle between mother and daughter. I loved his Act Two soliloquy; it really explained what the character was all about and you just knew it was going to pave the way for a melodramatic sad ending. My only criticism of his performance is that when he prepares breakfast for Mags, he knows his way around her kitchen far too well for someone who had never been there before.
One very strange experience: there was no applause at the end of the first act. It certainly deserved the traditional pre-interval clapping but you could tell it wasn’t going to materialise so I gamely started it off. I did about fifteen claps but with no one joining in, until Mrs C convinced me I was fighting a losing battle. I think I’ve only experienced that once before, and that was in a very lacklustre play (can’t remember what), but this was an excellent production. I assumed the rather lazy audience just couldn’t be bothered; Mrs C’s opinion was that the audience was so dumbstruck with how horrible the mother was that they couldn’t bring themselves to show any signs of appreciation. Anyway, enthusiastic applause at the end of the play certainly made up for it. It’s a hard-hitting production of a fascinating play that you carry on discussing days afterwards. Not an easy watch – disturbing and shocking in many respects – but horrifically good.