The Beauty Queen of Leenane – The Brunton Theatre

Written by Martin McDonagh

Directed by Lyn McAndrew

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Family just ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, is it? But if you think you’ve had it bad, wait until you see what Maureen must put up with. At the beck and call of her mother: making tea, porridge, and stirring the Complan. Or is Maureen’s mother Mag the victim here, putting up with her daughter’s more sinister tactics?

In this distinctly lonely, run-down cottage in Connemara, the pair live in relative isolation – Maureen working to support the pair, returning home to tend to her demanding and manipulative mother. But all it takes is one flicker of hope, an ember of freedom, of a returning admirer to ignite a sense of reprieve. Mag, however, senses a threat to her autonomy, care-homes awaiting, and the dismantling of the familial; she isn’t going to allow it. So when a letter arrives for her daughter which may offer a new life, well, the fire could do with some extra kindling.

One of, if not the, finest piece of Martin McDonagh’s works, The Beauty Queen of Leenane has scooped many an award for its bleak conjuring of the unbearable tension and harm incurred by loneliness and isolation.

Though a four-strong cast, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at its most successful when presented as a two-hander at the whims of Julie Hale and Nuala Walsh as Maureen and Mag. The complexity in capturing authentic familial relations is paramount to McDonagh’s script, this is too easy a show to slip into the depravity of violence or ridicule of comedy – but the pair find a beautifully unsettling balance.

The pair achieves precisely what the script requires, offering up two unreliable narratives. One may be beleaguered with the dottiness of age, the other still grappling with their difficulties and struggles with mental health following incarceration at an English mental institution. There are sublimely subtle elements of both unreliability and antagonistic actions, and it’s too late by the time the audience realises whose narrative to side with.

Machiavellian, twisted, but deliciously so – Walsh’s performance as Mag heightens the emotional stakes of the production while maintaining a sense of audience appreciation. Though spending much of the two-act play confined to her rocking chair, the sense of movement for both comical and fragility is expertly handled by Walsh and Lyn McAndrew’s direction, made all the more intimate by the more fluid aggression of Hale circling her mother.

Holding much of the narrative backbone, Hale undertakes a triumphantly discomfiting performance as Maureen. Her frustrations are understandable, her methods more than questionable. The flitters of imagination and flirtations with McAndrew’s Pato all persuade the audience of her naivety and grievances. Hale carries the crux of the story’s weight, in the changes and revelations, doing so without giving the game away until the crescendo moments. Gradually, we realise the truth when we see there’s no more cutting insult than a recognition you’re becoming one of your parents. And as Maureen sits there, huddled in her mother’s rocking chair, the cycle completes, Hale’s performance has come to a tightly constructed, well-executed perfection.

The men fair less so in-depth and complexities, though at no fault of McAndrew or Paul Carroll and Ian O’Reilly’s, but rather with the focus of McDonagh’s script on the maternal relationship. Indeed, Carroll achieves a tremendous deal of sympathy, and some more distinctive laughs, as the returning Pato. McAndrew delivers on the struggles of finding Carroll in between the pair of women, and his proclamation of the titular Beauty Queen inspire much of Maureen’s motivations. It’s a touching performance, made all the more sentimental with his monologue as we enter the second act, and the life Maureen could have had. 

Our final character, Pato’s younger brother Ray, finds himself the representative stance of the isolated male aggression – frustrated on the island, unable to forge a life for himself, echoes a still persistent issue for young men finding themselves secluded in small rural communities. O’Reilly explodes with rage throughout the production, often humorous, but always bordering on his justification. The performance is solid, if the writing confines the character to an arbiter of sorts, to deliver plot-thursts.

The natural absence of contemporary gizmos and electronics enables Davy Cunningham’s lighting to skitter around the staging, the lone television and ebbing glow of the firelight serving as our sole source of light. The casting shadows transform the text from a bleak comedy into a nightmarish thriller, the crackles of the radio cooing into the bleakness of Ken Harrison’s design work, but there’s always a laugh to locate in the darkness.

McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane clashes headfirst with the old ways. It’s that rare, misanthropic Celtic sense of humour noted in the work of Irish texts, particularly those surrounding relatives and duty. Where the cynicism of respect comes colliding with faith and family. McAndrew’s direction relishes the betwixt & between of dying laughter, the realisation of when the joke has dipped into the macabre and the audience sniggers levy as they come to appreciate the gravity of it all. It’s a cruel yet magnificent production – fleeting, but McAndrew makes the most of time and forces audiences to wait and savour what they have witnessed.

Cruel, Yet a Magnificent Production

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues touring across Scotland.

Tickets and dates of which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Richard Campbell

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