The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh
Young Vic on tour
Bath Theatre Royal
(2011)

The Beauty Queen of Leenane production photo

Hoorah for the Old Vic for bagging this production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane by its upstart London namesake which comes to Bath trailing clouds of glory.

This much-acclaimed revival of a play, which won the Evening Standard, Critics' Circle and Writers' Guild Award for Best New Play, is visiting the city for one of only three stops on a regional tour before its return to the capital.

One of Martin McDonagh's earlier outings, it is not such strong meat as the darkly brilliant Lieutenant of Innishmore, nor The Pillowman, though it has its moments. It begins squarely in Father Ted territory, as broad farce, before moving through the registers to find a sense of tragedy which echoes Hardy.

Like The Weir by his compatriot Conor McPherson, the play is set in one location in rural Ireland. But whereas McPherson mines a sad but sweet languor and a rapt lyricism among the regulars of a pub, McDonagh, who sets his play in the kitchen of a shabby, claustrophobic cottage, finds only regret, bitterness and a desperate yearning to escape cramped and thwarted lives.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane centres on Maureen Folan, a 40-year-old spinster who takes care of her selfish and manipulative 70-year-old mother Mag. Maureen's sisters have long since married and fled the coop. But Maureen, whom we learn has a history of mental illness, is trapped in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

To make matters worse the play seems to suggest that, "Beyond the wires brings us up against the wires", to quote Larkin. Maureen did escape when younger to seek a life beyond the village in London but found only antipathy from the English and, eventually, a breakdown. "Why did you leave that for this?", a fellow member of the downtrodden asks Maureen, when she shows her fellow cleaner a picture of the countryside around the village in Galway.

Hope for Maureen arrives in the form of Pato Dooley, newly returned from England and life as a construction worker which he has found similarly abject. But hopes that these two damaged souls, who meet at a dance, might find happiness together are cruelly extinguished by Mag, in her role as Atropos.

There is uniformly fine work from the four principals who are Rosaleen Linehan as Mag, Derbhle Crotty as Maureen Folan, Frank Laverty as Pato Dooley and Johnny Ward as Ray Dooley. The design by 'Ultz' is suitably excellent and the play is well orchestrated by director Joe Hill-Gibbins.

If I find fault it is not with the production but the play which neither wrongfoots one, as his later work does, nor challenges one's assumptions, but instead heads inexorably towards the conclusion that one saw coming from the first.

As the play closes and the lights dim we see Maureen, sat in her mother's rocking chair, apparently condemned to a life of dole and rancour.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Young Vic

Reviewer: Pete Wood