At its very heart The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Mark Babych is about fear; a cold bone-chilling fear of being alone: of living alone and dying alone, unloved and uncared for. The name ‘beauty queen’ given to Maureen is aspirational, pure fantasy and what could be more intoxicating than being someone’s idea of a beauty queen, when the closest you come to glamour is through the faux glam and sunshine lives on a daytime Aussie drama show.
Maureen played by Siobhan O’Kelly, is the dutiful, if somewhat reluctant, daughter caring for her elderly mum in a small house in Connemara at the end of the 20th Century. Their lives revolve around each other, locked in a daily routine, each reacting to the other’s back-biting like a baying hound. We learn quickly that this routine has been going on a decade or more, doing the errands, the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, stirring the Complan, fixing the fecking porridge…
It is no wonder Maureen begrudges the daft old bat brilliantly played by Maggie McCarthy, sat in the rocking chair all day long, barking her orders like a defeated general. All is not what it seems, not at all, Maureen’s reasons for being there in the home, is not as simple as just looking after her mum. Over the years the care-giver role has become poisoned, perhaps it was always so, into co-dependence, with more manipulation than a meeting of the district council.
The dialogue is a joy, the colourful turn of phrase, the attractive practice of reversing sentence order, changing statements into questions. The writer Martin McDonagh who found fame with films such as In Bruges and Three Billboards and is considered to be one of the most acclaimed Irish playwrights, is known for his extraordinary way with scripts. So it is in Beauty Queen, the dialogue between Maureen and Mag is filled with such poetry through repetition and rhythm, there’s venom and bitterness bordering on something else, which builds in intensity and breeds familiarity.
There’s plenty of trademark humour often centred around the men in the play, the instantly loveable Ray played by Laurence Pybus, full of youth and nonsense, an awkward teenage physicality and a wonderful store of expressive faces. I can picture him sat at the kitchen table tearing himself apart at the seams, over what to do with the precious letter from Pato that has to be placed into the hand of Maureen and no other. As for Pato played by Nicholas Boulton he represents freedom for Maureen, a new life filled with excitement and the possibility of love. And him being a man, has no problem with leaving the old country. Maureen, on the other hand, has responsibilities and her duty as a daughter: even a poisoned well is better than no well at all.
Maggie McCarthy steals the show as cantankerous and devious as ever she could be, dominating the stage from the confines of her rocking chair. From the moment in the opening scene when Maureen brings in the shopping bags and sets about making tea, you feel a kinship with the two women, you recognise yourself and your own relationships with your loved ones, sympathise even empathise with their situation. But McDonagh, known for his deviant plot twists, soon has you questioning again and again what are your exact feelings, where exactly does your loyalty lie, with these two women locked in a claustrophobic battle of wits?
Mention should go to the design team of Jess Addinall and Sara Perks for the special effects and the detailed set, instantly transporting you to the old stone Connemara kitchen. In the audience there were any number of shocked faces, even tears at the promised terrifying denouement. You’ll not be forgetting Mag or Maureen, or the Beauty Queen of Leenane in a hurry.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs at Hull Truck Theatre until 26th October
Picture: Ian Hodgson