9 October 2021
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE (Lyric Theatre Hammersmith) Review
I’ve heard nothing but rave comments about this play from several friends over the years. The 1998 Broadway production was nominated for 6 Tony awards (and won 4). There have been more staging and revivals over the years than I can count, yet I’d never seen it. Having thoroughly enjoyed every McDonagh play I’d seen but one, the bar was set incredibly high.
I had an idea about the plot and purposefully chose not to read up on the details. A 40-year old Maureen lives with her elderly mum Mag and takes care of her. The two have a resentful relationship. One day Pato (whom she knew years ago in her youth), pops back into Maureen’s life, and she is excited about the prospect of a future with him. Mag, however, tries to prevent it so that Maureen would continue to look after her. Dark Irish comedy ensues.
The acting was great, the direction was solid, the set was fantastic, the writing was on-point, yet something about the play didn’t sit right with me. Spent the interval and the journey home thinking about it…
I haven’t seen (or read) every play McDonagh has written. In fact, this was the first one of his Leenane Trilogy for me. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” was written in 1996 (mind the dates, this is important!), with “A Scull in Connemara” and “The Lonesome West” following it in 1997. I had, however, seen the first two of his Aran Islands Trilogy: “The Cripple of Inishmaan” (also written in 1996) and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” (written much later in 2001). “The Banshees of Inisheer” has never been staged. “The Pillowman“, “Hangmen“, and “A Very Very Very Dark Matter” were all written after “Beauty Queen”.
Looking back at every McDonagh I’d seen on stage (even “Dark Matter“, which I disliked quite a bit), every character in every play has both a clear motivation and the “behaviour origin” for lack of a better word: we not only know why the character is doing something, but how s/he came to being that way. It’s more prominent in his later plays, but even “The Cripple” falls into this pattern. “Beauty Queen” does not (at least not for me), quite possibly because it’s the earliest one of the lot, so perhaps McDonagh hasn’t perfected his craft by then just yet. It’s obvious that Mag is cruel to Maureen because, her other two daughters having abandoned her, she will do everything she can to keep Maureen taking care of her. Maureen is obviously cruel to Mag because she resents her mother standing in the way of Maureen having a life and a family of her own. What’s not clear (again, to me; others might have clocked it where I didn’t) is who started first. Was Maureen looking after Mag with good will and got more and more mean as Mag treated her poorly? Was Mag just a lovely old lady who had to retaliate at her daughter’s bad treatment? You might think it’s not important, but I think it is. What I realised I liked about McDonagh’s plays is lack of ambiguity about who does what when. The acting and the staging make each production of every play unique, but it gives the plays fantastic clarity. This is why “Beauty Queen” just didn’t sit right with me: it’s muddled. There is an escalating pattern of Mag and Maureen treating one another poorly, and I think I wanted to sympathise with one of them. The play is seriously muddled without it… But that’s on McDonagh.
Rachel O’Riordan’s direction is tries, I feel, to give the play the flow and cohesiveness in places where writing lets it down. Between her direction and the set from Good Teeth Theatre, there are clean sight-lines from pretty much anywhere in the audience. The acting as a whole was top notch. Ingrid Craigie flips effortlessly between an innocent old lady and a cruel selfish cow. The mischief and glee in her face whilst her eye follow the letter in Ray’s hand is just superb. Orla Fitzgerald (Maureen) nicely captures a strong independent woman who’ll give it to her mother as good as she gets it, but her “weaker” moments also feel genuine and sweet. Adam Best (Pato) is mesmerising in his tenderness and show of sympathy for Maureen. Kwaku Fortune (Ray, Pato’s younger brother who pops in with letters and messages) does his character justice by being a charming comic relief in this otherwise dark story.
As you can see, all the components are just right, yet something was off, and the more I think about it, the more it’s down to McDonagh’s writing and not having that clarity of origin.
A couple of specific points and notes:
- For me, the letter-writing scene alone is worth the admission price. McDonagh’s writing there is superb, and Adam Best captures it beautifully.
- The death sceene (I don’t think this is a spoiler because I’m not telling you who it is) was very confusing to me because I could see the person breathing quite obviously, so I thought they were asleep. Reading the plot summary afterwards explained it a bit better, but using a blanket or something may’ve added a bit more clarity.
- How the person died wasn’t clear to me, though there were several instances of Chekhov’s gun throughout the production. Reading full synopsis later, it does seem that this was indeed the instrument of death. I am undecided about it… On the one hand, kudos to Rachel O’Riordan for not making it super obvious (i.e., what’s written is written, but she opted not to show it). On the other hand, coupled with seeing the person breathe, I found the death somewhat confusing…
- I had to look up “Complan” after the show. It’s obvious from context that it’s some kind of a meal replacement drink, like “Ensure”, but still.
- There are references to cats in the dialog, and they are hysterical. Lovers of “Lieutenant” rejoice!
It’s a good show with great acting, strong direction, enjoyable script, and good sight-lines. My gripes with the play itself notwithstanding, I’d say it’s still worth seeing.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10.
Bonus: Seeing a show at the Lyric almost inevitably means having a little old lady do something silly (see “Ghost Stories” review as an example). This time, when Mag did a horrible thing to something important to Maureen (being vague here so not to ruin it for whose who don’t know the plot in detail), the old lady at the end of my row (who, inexplicably, took off her mask after she sat down, spent the whole show without it, then put it back on to exit after the show was over!!!) went, rather audibly, “oh no! no-no-no!” and clicked her tongue disapprovingly…