The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh
Lyric Theatre, Belfast, Prime Cut Productions
Lyric Theatre, Belfast

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Ger Ryan as Mag and Nicky Harley as Maureen in The Beauty Queen of Leenane Credit: Ciaran Bagnall
Caolán Byrne as Pato in The Beauty Queen of Leenane Credit: Ciaran Bagnall
Ger Ryan and Marty Breen's Roy in The Beauty Queen of Leenane Credit: Ciaran Bagnall
Ger Ryan as Mag Credit: Ciaran Bagnall
Nicky Harley as Maureen Credit: Ciaran Bagnall
Caolán Byrne and Nicky Harley Credit: Ciaran Bagnall

Emma Jordan’s meticulous revival of Martin McDonagh’s darkly discomforting The Beauty Queen of Leenane, co-produced by Belfast’s Prime Cut Productions and Lyric Theatre, is a masterly display of Irish theatre at its best.

Last seen at the Lyric in 2009, its return comes fortuitously in the wake of McDonagh’s recent film success, The Banshees of Inisherin, with which it shares the same grim, bleakly comedic preoccupation with unfulfilled lives and unrealised desires variously twisted and thwarted.

The West of Ireland, setting for both McDonagh’s latest film and this, his debut play, has always been a world apart. Remote from the country’s two contrary capitals and pinioned against a forbidding Atlantic coastline, in McDonagh’s darkest hue, it seems lost in time, trapped in stultifying convention, fraught with violence and clinging to itself with an atavistic terror of change.

Into such emotionally-fraught terrain, McDonagh boldly inserts a domestic drama drawn from timeless tropes that ancient Greek theatregoers would readily recognise. We are in Sophoclean territory here, manipulative mother Mag and spinster-daughter Maureen locked in a contest which neither can win, and both will lose.

All sly, scheming, sideways glances and caustic, self-serving put-downs, Ger Ryan’s hard-edged Mag is a potently malevolent presence, a malignant Furie disguised as aged dependant, one hand a red-raw claw, the other forever twitching in search of a trigger. Nicky Harley’s put-upon Maureen is frustration personified. Enslaved to domestic obligations, her one chance of escape comes to nothing, leaving only revenge as compensation. Both are compelling performances marked by emotional nuance and theatrical nouse.

Besotted by Maureen but bedevilled by Mag, Caolán Byrne’s Pato breezes through en route to America, a last chance that becomes a missed opportunity. His awkward, stumbling entreaty of Maureen—the letter written but delivered into the wrong hands—is marvellously done, Neil Martin’s haunting cello accompaniment a baleful commentary.

Marty Breen’s feisty adolescent Ray is a Puckish presence, fizzing and fulminating against his lot, finding solace only in Australian soap operas and stale Kimberley biscuits, flimsy substitutes for the promise of a more alluring world elsewhere.

What isn’t merely stale here turns to corrosive wormwood and gall, the ramshackle cottage partially consumed in Ciaran Bagnall’s striking set by a hydra-branched hawthorn tree, curling turf-fire smoke mingling with fog and sea drift into ominous shape-shifting spectres backlit by ocean-fed showers of rain.

Emma Jordan’s production matches the knowing verve of McDonagh’s multi-faceted script in which Sartre collides with Synge, banality with horror, romance with brute indifference, with an insightful sureness of touch.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn

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