Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an intensely Irish play set in the wilds of Connemara, premiered locally by the Druid Theatre Company in Galway in 1996. Those familiar with the area will feel the regional characteristics resonating throughout every aspect of this joint production with Hull Truck Theatre, staged by their artistic director Mark Babych assisted by Maureen Lennon, at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch.
Movingly touches in some way on the lives of everyone.
Maureen (Siobhan O’Kelly) is in her 40s and still without a partner in life. She lives acrimoniously and resentfully with her controlling and ever-demanding mother, Mag (Maggie McCarthy) in their remote croft, deserted by her two sisters. She has what amounts to a one-night stand with Pato (Nicholas Boulton) following a farewell party in town for his visiting cousin from Boston. They’ve known each other for around twenty years, but this is the first time anything has ever happened between them. His long-term feelings are flatteringly expressed in referring to her as the beauty queen of Leenane. The next morning she ensures that Pato encounters her disapproving mother first, before she outrageously flaunts her triumph. Mag starts to reveal more about Maureen’s past and a suggestion of Maureen's physical cruelty towards her mother emerges. Pato and Maureen have a disagreement, but he promises to write to her from London, where he is based for work. His younger brother, Ray (Laurence Pybus) acts as messenger and delivery boy throughout, but is less than vigilant in his duties, allowing Mag to subvert any future plans. The denouement is a tragedy of confusion, twists and revelations that cast new light on all the stories and relationships.
The second-night performance got off to a shaky and rather hesitant start in a series of scenes that will no doubt become tighter and better paced once Babych does further work on them and the run continues. McCarthy seemed to be occupying the middle ground of a character that should push the limits of being a needy old lady who, at the very least, is being emotionally abused by her daughter and for whom one might feel some sympathy, and a vindictive, selfish, harridan who is lucky to be looked after at all. Without those extremes on full display O’Kelly has a harder task of making her responses meaningful. What she does capture is the frustration of Maureen’s lot in life and rural insularity. She also mounts an intriguing drip-feed of reactions and outbursts that hint at later revelations. It’s a play in which act two continually invites reflections on act one.
Pybus, through a soundly created character, provides humour amidst scenes of black comedy and distress. He becomes a likeable young fellow of limited intellectual ability, absorbed in TV soaps, naively trying to be helpful, but always seeming to fall short of carrying out what he has promised. Boulton also provides some funny moments, but in Pato they stem from his encounters in life and handling of situations. His bold performance is rustically earnest and intense, whilst portraying the emotional immaturity that even a man with his imposing presence and experience cannot hide. This is expressed almost poetically in his moving act two opening monologue, staged as an intimate revelation close to the audience in dimmed light.
Extraordinarily thick exposed walls dominate Sara Perks’s set, providing an outline of the building, with sides sloping up from the apron to the rear wall, complete with windows and a door. It looks impressive at first, but it does nothing to heighten the claustrophobia experienced by mother and daughter and it’s spaciousness causes what might otherwise be up-close venomous exchanges to be carried out at several arms’ length away from each other. It’s further opened-up by changing times of day being lit up in the sky behind courtesy of Jessica Addinall. Andy Bubbl, in charge of rain effects, however, has created a couple of delightfully torrential west coast downpours and sound design and composition by Adam McCready heighten some tense moments.
In many ways McDonagh’s has created in this house in Leenane a metaphor for Ireland itself; a nation for so long trapped under the controlling arm of an imperial power, a people longing to be free, yet indebted to others, looking to where the grass always seems greener, yet facing ridicule and abuse when they go there. In that respect the play tells more than just the story of these four people; it movingly touches in some way on the lives of everyone and especially of those who feel trapped in places and relationships.