The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh
Watford Palace Theatre
(2006)

This haunting revival of Martin McDonagh's black comedy is a reminder of his prodigious talent. It is also timely, as it opened the day after the tenth anniversary of its first performance in Galway, in a co-production that later moved to the Royal Court. Incredibly this debut play by a Briton also made it to Broadway, winning four Tonys.

For a Londoner in his twenties to write a perfectly constructed play about the painful loneliness of rural life in Connemara, practically without putting a foot wrong, was a remarkable achievement - the writer's ability to put himself into the shoes of middle-aged and elderly women even more so.

The promise has been fulfilled both in London and on Broadway where McDonagh has proved himself many times over, most recently with an even darker piece, The Pillowman.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is Cate Hamer's Maureen Folan, a forty year old virgin who has been left behind by a pair of married sisters to look after their increasingly dotty mother, Mags.

Eileen Foley makes the septuagenarian with a urine infection a little more sprightly and less curmudgeonly than Anna Manahan did first time around. She certainly makes her irritating, such that an audience whisper after the interval unkindly suggested that if someone didn't finish her off soon, they would.

The old lady is demanding and aggravating but, nevertheless, in addition to building frustration on both sides, there is a bond of affection between mother and daughter. This is regularly stretched to breaking point by their claustrophobic existence, with only passing animals for company.

This changes when first, young Ray Dooley (Andrew Macklin hilariously oozing boredom) comes to visit, soon followed by his English-based brother Pato. The latter, a shy contemporary of Maureen is played by Connor Byrne who gets a epistolary moment of glory drawing spontaneous applause.

Pato has always had a soft spot for her and on a short visit easily succumbs to the offer of a brief (but unsuccessful) fling.

Once her passions are awakened and a brief spell of madness recalled, the young woman begins to dream of a different life, away from her manipulative, demanding mother.

The drama builds to a dramatic climax that is unforgettably poignant, in part thanks to the efforts of young director Kirstie Davis, who delights in the title of the Palace's Associate Director (Active).

She receives good support from a strong cast led by Mesdames Hamer and Foley, together with Jessica Curtis whose design is reminiscent of the original and catches the primitive conditions that many country dwellers in Ireland endure even today.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a really fine play that still compares with the best that McDonagh has written. Those who make the trip to Watford should be both amused and moved by this welcome revival of one of the last decade's finest plays.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher