The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Lyric Hammersmith – review

Image above: Ingrid Craigie, Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen of Leenane; photograph Helen Maybanks

A beautifully crafted play, this was Martin McDonagh’s debut 25 years ago. It premiered in Galway and quickly established him as one of Ireland’s most exciting new writers. It transferred to the West End and received an Olivier Award nomination for Play of the Year, and on Broadway it won four Tony Awards. McDonagh’s plays also include the Tony Award nominated The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and the Olivier Award winning Hangmen.

Now also a multi-award-winning film director, he’s famous for a string of hit films: Six Shooter, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. His preoccupation with the darkness of the human condition was as strong then as it is now, but it’s the combination of that outlook with his humour that makes his work so interesting.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is of its time (1996), with people still leaving Ireland by the plane load to find a new life elsewhere and readiness to admit mental illness not as accepted as it is now, but it’s an interesting insight into life in rural Ireland at the time, bleak though it is.

Image above: Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen of Leenane; photograph Helen Maybanks

The main characters Mag and her daughter Maureen are trapped together in a tedious existence in the mountains of Connemara, County Galway. Both Maureen’s sisters are married. They will barely have their mother for Christmas, let alone have her to live with them and Maureen sees her chances of independence and fulfilment dwindling fast as she’s stuck in the daily routine of providing for them both.

She doesn’t attempt to hide her bitterness and frustration as she resentfully doles out Complan, porridge, cod in buter sauce boiled in a bag (remember that?) and tea to the older woman in an endless cycle. Nor does Mag temper her demands and complaints – ‘make me a cup of tea… the Complan’s lumpy’ or mitigate her behaviour. The house stinks of wee because she empties her chamber pot in the kitchen sink each morning and doesn’t even rinse the sink.

Venturing into this fetid and festering atmosphere, a rare visitor, Ray appears with a message for Maureen, which the spiteful mother, jealously guarding against anything that might take her daughter/ housemaid / cook away from dancing attendance on her, destroys. Fortunately for Maureen she bumps into Ray on his way out the gate, so she gets the message anyway.

Image above: Adam Best and Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen of Leenane; photograph Helen Maybanks

An encounter with a neighbour, Pato, back from working in England for a party with American cousins on a brief visit, develops into a brief glimpse of romance and passion for Maureen. But it all goes south very quickly because of the manipulative Mags’ interference. As we’ve come to expect with Martin McDonagh’s work, violence flares suddenly and unexpectedly.

This major revival of McDonagh’s first play, jointly produced by the Lyric Hammersmith and Chichester Festival Theatre and directed by the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre’s Olivier winning Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan, is acted brilliantly by a very accomplished cast.


Images above: Ingrid Craigie and Kwaku Fortune in The Beauty Queen of Leenane; photograph Helen Maybanks

Ingrid Craigie plays Mag. Her award-winning stage, film and television actor credits include BBC’s Roadkill, Harding in Sky Arts’ Psychic and Molly in Forever In My Heart.

Orla Fitzgerald is Maureen. She played Orla Walsh in all three series of BBC 3’s The Young Offenders and won Best Actress and Best Breakthrough Artist Irish Film and Television Awards nomination for Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Kwaku Fortune plays Ray. You may recognise him as DS Marks in Line of Duty, Philip in Normal People, and Julian in feature film Animal.

Pato, the love interest, is played by Adam Best, who’s been in Netflix’Giri/Haji, Peaky Blinders and Silent Witness.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs until Saturday 6 November.

Book tickets through the Lyric Hammersmith website, or ring the Box Office on 0208 741 6850.

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