The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh
Curve Theatre Leicester and Mercury Theatre Colchester
Curve, Leicester

Stephen Hogan (Pato) and Michelle Moran (Maureen) Credit: Pamela Raith
Nora Connolly (Mags), Michelle Moran (Maureen) and Stephen Hogan (Pato) Credit: Pamela Raith
Nora Connolly (Mags) and Michelle Moran (Maureen) Credit: Pamela Raith

“Killing you would just be a bonus,” the love-starved Maureen warns her mother at the start of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

It gets a laugh of course but, amid the vocal jousting between Maureen and Mags, resentment is building and we are in no doubt that the comedy will turn nasty. The clues are there, like the hot poker or the old woman’s scolded hand.

From the moment she comes in from the rain (a terrific effect with a sheet of water bouncing inches from the front row) and steps into the kitchen of their County Galway home, we understand Maureen’s anger, her yearning for a life like any other 40-year-old.

She is “not appreciated”, she tells her mum, the excellent Nora Connolly as Mags who, at first glance, is calling the shots while Maureen (Michele Moran) waits on her with porridge and Complan or tea and biscuits.

Cleverly, we see Mags watch the Australian soaps on daytime TV; we listen with her as she tunes in to a crackling radio or enjoy the painfully slow shuffle she makes to tip her own urine down the sink, all the time reinforcing the idea that their lives are monotonous; going nowhere.

But as we’re pulled in to their world, thinking for a second it might be some sort of Steptoe and Daughter, McDonagh and director Paul Kerryson shift the mood to something darker.

Maureen has the chance of a night out with Pato (Stephen Hogan) who is returning to Ireland from a spell working in England.

Up to now, she has only ever kissed two men. “Two men is plenty,” Mags points out but her daughter isn’t listening.

When she brings Pato back to the house, she has a bigger welcome for him than even he dared imagine and, while the kitchen table encounter is funny, Maureen’s desperation is also achingly sad.

Mags sees the two lovers next morning—her realisation is a joy to watch—and at once understands the possibility of losing Maureen forever. And that can’t be. Questions are asked about Maureen’s past, her mental wellbeing—and Mags anxiously digs out the paperwork to prove it.

Later on she burns the letter Pato sends to his “beauty queen” from England, and what might have been a future is all too quickly taken from Maureen’s grasp.

Now in freefall and unable to see a way ahead, Moran as Maureen is brilliant at conveying both the potential to be frightening and the terror of what she’s become. The violence she succumbs to is inevitable but nonetheless shocking when it arrives.

In reviving this 1996 play, Curve’s co-production with the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, is funny, sad and gripping in equal measure, reminding us of both McDonagh’s blistering talent and the power of regional theatre to entertain while it makes us think.

Reviewer: Andy Plaice

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