Review – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Curve Studio, Leicester, 26th October 2013

The Beauty Queen of LeenaneAre 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.

Michele MoranIt 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.

Nora ConnollyThis 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.

Andrew MacklinThe 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.

The Beauty Queen herselfNora 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.

Stephen HoganWe 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.

It's not going to end well...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.

Review – Dancing at Lughnasa, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2013

Dancing at LughnasaIn the early 1990s Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves up to our eyeballs in matters too dull to repeat here but which meant that we spent about four years without going to the theatre. At all. Unimaginable! As a result of that fallow period, we never saw Dancing at Lughnasa first time round; or indeed, any Brian Friel play. So it was a good opportunity to put that right with the choice of this Olivier and Tony award winning play as part of this year’s Made In Northampton season.

Michele MoranI was expecting something gentle, lyrical, reflective and Irish. Well two out of four isn’t bad. I wouldn’t call it a gentle play by any means – its depiction of poverty, dementia and unfulfilled lives is hard hitting, albeit punched with a soft glove. Neither would I think of it as lyrical – the language of the Mundy sisters is more attuned to the mundanity of getting batteries for the radio, the drudgery of work and maintaining the household than any pretence to a romantic notion of the simple “good old days”. Reflective, however, it certainly is. The whole structure of the play is that Michael, the grown-up son of Christina, looks back on his childhood and the characters who inhabited it, to tell to a present-day audience the story of the sisters. Because he tells us how the story ends, this gives rise to a considerable sense of dramatic irony, especially in the second act. And finally, Irish; it goes without saying really, and indeed many of the accents I heard around the theatre and bar during the interval were from the Emerald Isle.

Zoe RaineyContrasting and interspersed with the drudgery and general tedium of remote village life with no money, comes the concept of dancing, a simple form of self-expression, which the sisters turn to in order to bring some light into their lives. It may be the childish dancing of Rose, the razzmatazz dancing of Maggie, or The Full Riverdance that the sisters do as a group when the infectious joy of the music from the wireless is too much to ignore. Dancing is associated with negative aspects too – Gerry, the waster boyfriend of Christina, and father of Michael, loves to dance, and not to do much else; and the ritualised dancing of the Ugandan tribe where Father Jack had gone as a missionary in part caused his downfall.

Grainne KeenanTechnically, as seems always to be the case with these Made in Northampton shows, it’s a wonderful production. Naomi Dawson’s fantastic set, which gives a huge impression of depth – Row A has been removed from the stalls for this production – has skeleton roofing, tired furniture, a black horizon and real grass. Jon Nicholls’ ethereally eerie background music gets interrupted with a jolt by the harsh sound effects of real life. Lee Curran’s lighting subtly draws your attention to the important scenes and contrasts the sunlight of the garden with the dinginess of the house. It’s all masterminded by the director Richard Beecham who has created a terrific ensemble spirit within the cast and allowed Brian Friel’s text to do the talking in a sensitive, gimmick-free staging.

Caroline LennonIf I have a criticism of the play, it would be that – basically – not a lot happens. And some of what does happen, you don’t actually see or experience, you just get told about it. But your attention is always held, and the lack of action certainly doesn’t lead to boredom. It makes you think hard about the wider relationships of the characters, for example, what happened to them in the future, and what was the Priestleyesque “dangerous corner” when something went wrong; Mrs C and I spent the rest of the evening trying to piece in the gaps of the play for ourselves – which is always a satisfying process.

Colm GormleyThere are some terrific performances. Kate, the schoolmistress head of the household, is played with great understanding and insight by Michele Moran. Kate is the authoritarian, the breadwinner, and frequently the bully; at other times she can lose her inhibitions just as much as her less responsible sisters. Michele Moran absolutely gets that mixture of kindness and harshness, and it’s a superb performance. She completely reminded me of my old headmistress. I shuddered at the thought.

Sarah CorbettZoe Rainey is splendid as Christina, downtrodden when part of the sisterly group, but blossoming when alone, beguiled by Gerry, even though she knows he’s only spinning his stories. Her gradual descent from placid to jealous is beautifully realised when she observes Gerry interacting with the other sisters, particularly the well meaning Agnes, another super performance by Grainne Keenan; there’s obviously some history there between the characters, but you have to piece it together yourself.

Christopher SaulWe both really enjoyed the performance of Caroline Lennon as Maggie, warm-hearted, cheeky, flawed, and always doing her best for the group as a whole. Her facial expressions at others’ conversations and references give you gradual clues to gather together and fill in the gaps about Maggie’s past; a subtle and beautiful performance. I also thought Colm Gormley, as the narrator Michael, did a great job of bringing us into his confidence, reminiscing about the past with warmth but not sentiment, vocally interacting with his aunts as they were playing with him, and coming to terms with aspects of his own life as a result of reliving these memories.

Milo TwomeySarah Corbett expressed Rose’s simple nature with a wide-eyed wonderment and an innocently child-like voice to boot; Christopher Saul’s Jack was a superb study of someone in the first stages of dementia, still largely able to survive independently but who needs someone else to join the dots for them, and Milo Twomey made a roguish Gerry, all charm and empty promises, although we did think that his Welsh accent occasionally went a bit Home Counties.

But it’s a very engrossing and thought-provoking play, given a loving treatment by the cast and production team. Definitely recommended.