The Beauty Queen of Leenane
The Lyric's temporary home at the Elmwood Hall is a fitting setting for Martin McDonagh's bleak, brilliant play
They f*ck you up your parents, as a famous curmudgeon poet almost wrote. But at what point and to what degree would you be willing to take retribution? Alas, Mr Larkin never elaborated, but it’s a twisted mother love that dominates, thwarts and finally breaks spinster Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
The temporary domicile of Elmwood Hall makes a fittingly atmospheric setting for the Lyric’s revival of Martin McDonagh’s bleak, black and brilliant first play.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first play also in the loose Leenane Trilogy, introduced audiences to a writer who revelled in the verbal exchanges of his protagonists, the violence of words often proving as damaging as fists.
Although second generation Irish, McDonagh’s childhood summers spent in the ‘old country’ clearly weren’t just long lazy days at the seaside. His feel for the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Connemara dialect are spot on, enhanced by an excellent cast who take to the near-poetical practice of participle slippage with aplomb.
Beauty Queen is a triumph also for director Richard Croxford, who gives the actors room to explore the comic absurdities of Irish rural life without ever letting the performances lapse into cliché. The spare, single set of an Irish scullery, with the yawning backdrop of the blasted hills of the west coast describes an isolated, rural limbo in which Maureen, and Mag, her exasperating, passive-aggressive mother eke out their vicious psychological warfare.
Fittingly, all dramatic events happen here (as in Irish life, so in Irish theatre), the kitchen’s dank, cell-like austerity defining and confining the pair’s twisted relationship.
The bitterness of exchanges between mother and daughter is truly, wonderfully acrid such as when Maureen admits to daydreaming about Mag’s demise and then copping off at her funeral to which the older woman spits: 'You’ll be 70 at my wake. How many men will want you then?'
The incessant demands of the mother (the unholy trinity of porridge, tea and complan are Mag’s tools of subjugation) countered by the acid-drop derogations of Maureen suggest an ever-seesawing power play where death may deliver the only possible abeyance.
It betrays a history of resentment, manipulation and madness which later unravels in a chilling and tragic conclusion. Of the excellent cast of four, the two central performances are extraordinary. Stella McCusker imbues the mother with decrepit malevolence – a bitter old woman whose doddering veneer masks a crystal-hard determination to surreptitiously control the fate of her hapless daughter.
Geraldine Hughes is equally remarkable as Maureen, making her both tough and tender, a tragic dreamer and a hard-nosed pragmatist. Her expression of childlike bliss when locked in a drunken embrace with construction worker Pato, only the third love interest in her 40 years, is heart-breaking.
The moment when she comes down in bra and slip after Pato stays over and loudly requests in front of a distressed Mag that Pato 'stick that thing of yours in me again soon', is spiteful, childish, and funny.
It is builder Pato, back visiting family from London, who offers the possibility of happiness and escape, but the moment that hope is raised, you know McDonagh isn’t going to let it happen. This world isn’t built for dreamers and the only endings to be had in Leenane are sorry ones.
As Pato says of his experience of working on a building site in London, in a neat précis of the Irish immigrant experience: 'When I’m in England I know I don’t want to be there. But I also know, if there was work here, I still wouldn’t want to be in Leenane.'
Of course, it is the light that accentuates the shade in such tragedy, and at times, this is a very funny play indeed. Great lines pepper the script such as: 'You can’t kick a cow in Leenane without some bastard bearing a grudge for 20 years.'
When Mag disingenuously blames the bad smell in the kitchen sink on a cat urinating in it, the response to the imaginary moggie’s seemingly meticulous toilet habits is 'that’s bloody nice of the cat'. Pato tries to placate Maureen after Mag makes the malicious revelation that she had a breakdown some years ago by reassuring her somewhat ill-advisedly that 'sure poor Spike Milligan is always having breakdowns, he never stops'.
Then there’s Pato’s tentative, tender letter to Maureen delivered by actor Stephen Darcy with a warmth and awkwardness befitting the proposal therein. This light, touching moment is the dramatic pivot upon which events rapidly spin out of control.
The strong thread of humour makes the horrific denouement, when it arrives, all the more unsettling as the delicately balanced reality of Maureen’s fragile existence unravels with indecent and cruel haste.
Our expectations are turned on a sixpence as we witness Maureen exact a terrible revenge for years of repression and servitude. It is to Geraldine Hughes' credit that even after the violence we witness, her Maureen remains a bruised, sympathetic, broken woman, the final cruel joke being that she has seemingly become the thing she hates the most – her mother.
A moving, funny, tragic play then, performed beautifully, and a timely reminder of the brilliance of one of the great contemporary documenters of some of the darker, more uncomfortable aspects of the human condition.
In mid September a large and illustrious crowd gathered at a building site beside the River Lagan to witness the unveiling, by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, of the Lyric Theatre’s threshold stone. The occasion was a highly significant one, tangibly paving the way for its return to Ridgeway Street in 2011 in a swanky new state-of-the-art theatre.
Meanwhile, the Lyric may be semi-homeless but it is hell bent on keeping its name and brand out there in the public domain, as it continues its campaign to raise the final £800,000 to finance the construction work. It has found temporary refuge in the rather splendid surroundings of the Elmwood Hall – lying vacant since the Ulster Orchestra moved out into the Ulster Hall. And it is here, in these unfamiliar surroundings, that it has kicked off its autumn season.
There is a palpable buzz and crackle of excitement in the air around the Lyric at present, as the activity of the building workers and the huge cranes beside the river signal the start of great things to come. And so it was that an atmosphere of celebration and goodwill marked the first outing as artistic director of the popular Richard Croxford, himself a fine actor and a former boss of Replay theatre-in-education company. Given the various boxes he has to tick, Croxford has opted to present a programme for 2019/10 which combines a degree of artistic challenge with widespread popular appeal.
His first choice to satisfy that tricky combination is Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. McDonagh is widely admired as a pithy, bleakly provocative writer, born and raised in England, yet able to deliver with astonishing linguistic fluency the small yet universal domestic dramas of small town life in the west of Ireland, where he spent many boyhood holidays. When this, his first stage play, exploded into the public arena in 1996, its combination of black humour, brutality, passion, dashed hopes and shattered dreams was breathtaking in its daring.
It would go on to form the first in the Leenane trilogy of plays, whose dark tales of festering human relationships are a heady fusion of kitchen sink drama and nail-biting thriller, the soft–spoken, sing-song speech rhythms barely masking the seething passions of characters trapped in a stifling, remote landscape of overwhelmingly savage beauty. These characters are a gift to a good actor and Croxford’s cast serve him well, with a quartet of intelligent, consistent performances.
Stella McCusker and Geraldine Hughes are Mags and Maureen Folan, mother and daughter caught up in a living hell. As they trade insults and obscenities, the claustrophobia of their mutual dislike is punctuated only by cups of Complan, bowls of porridge, mugs of tea, emptied chamber pots (into a skink full of dishes) and the occasional treat of a shortbread finger.
McCusker’s Mags is no crabbed crone but an embittered faded beauty, who resents and obstructs even the slightest possibility of pleasure presented to her daughter. While we never learn what has brought her to this low point, we will be left in no doubt as to the motivation for Maureen’s mental and moral disintegration. In Hughes’s truthful interpretation, she is a still-attractive 40 year-old, sexually repressed and longing only for the things in life that her sisters were allowed – husband, family, home. The savagery and hatred of their verbal exchanges are at once shocking and hilarious, McDonagh’s stock in trade.
Stephen Darcy as the ingenuous but well-meaning Pato Dooley delivers the most theatrical scene of the evening, as he reveals the affectionate contents of his letter to Maureen from his lonely exile in London. And as Pato’s cocky young brother Ray, Matthew McElhinney crafts some fine touches of comic timing in his impudent jousts with Mags and his ultimate, if unintentional, betrayal of Maureen and Pato.
A somewhat uninspiring set – the drab family kitchen nestling in a blurry backdrop of towering mountains – gives only a hint of the dreary, rain-soaked existence of this small, isolated rural community, pacing out its daily rituals.
And the shock effects of McDonagh’s cunningly crafted twists of the knife work well for members of the audience coming to the play for the first time. But in spite of the poor sightlines of the venue and the aching necks occasioned by the struggle for a reasonable view, this was an enjoyable, warm-hearted start to the Lyric’s new phase of life.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at the Elmwood Hall and other venues across Northern Ireland until October 21. Check out Culture Live! listings for more details.