It starts out with a row about lumpy porridge and enforced chicken Complan but it’s a feckin’ miracle there wasn’t a side order of arsenic.
There’s few crumbs of comfort for anyone in this powerful revival of Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which opened in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre on Thursday.
It’s 25 years since the multi award-winning drama premiered and revealed what has since become McDonagh’s stock-in-trade – fine writing featuring laugh-out-loud gallows humour and shock scenes of violence and retribution.
There’s a hint of the Steptoe’s in Beauty with 40-year-old drudge and never-been-kissed virgin, Maureen, forced to look after Mag, her devious & controlling mother.
The old girl is determined to get her money’s worth after taking in her daughter following a breakdown. Mag sits in her rocker, day after day, expecting to be waited on and then complains when everything’s not to her liking.
Their symbiotic relationship festers until it’s so toxic that even brothers Pato and Ray (Kwaku Fortune) don’t want to be caught in the middle – especially when the seething Maureen is carrying a poker.
Beauty Queen of Leenane is set in rural Connemara, circa 1995, in a remote hillside house that has become a prison for the scheming Mag, with her bad hip, urine infection and foul toilet habits, and her dissatisfied, angry daughter.
“I’m nothin’ but your feckin’ skivvy!” she whines as she makes another cup of Complan.
They bicker and fight, each needling the other, the tension rising between the pair.
When neighbour Ray asks Maureen to a party her vindictive mother burns the invite. Her daughter, discovering the deed, goes anyway and ends up bringing Ray’s brother, Pato, back home for the night.
He reveals that he’d been carrying a torch for the woman he called The Beauty Queen of Leenane, for about 20 years without ever plucking up the courage to do anything about it.
Pato, restless both at home and in England, where he’s gone for work, decides to try his luck in America and writes asking Maureen to go with him.
But can she break free from her mother’s grip and, more importantly, the past?
McDonagh’s fluid language swings from chirpy Irish whimsy to blistering vitriol, spat out by Maureen and cast aside by her conniving mum in a dark and stormy psychological slanging match between mother and daughter.
Orla Fitzgerald sizzles as the angry Maureen, whose dreary unfilfilled life takes her to the edge both physically & mentally. She’s a tragic figure fighting her inevitable destiny.
Ingrid Craigie is hugely believable as the manipulative Mag and creates a woman both scheming and wily yet vulnerable and lonely. Do we sympathise? Should we?
She doesn’t entirely convince in the climax of this savage psycho-drama but does enough to make some theatre-goers hide behind their hands.
And Adam Best’s lovely, plain-spoken Pato is a welcome relief. His unexpected romantic side comes as a real surprise.
It’s not isn’t exactly wine and roses but when he pours his heart and soul out in a letter (remember those) it brought a moment of fond nostalgia. Whatever happened to love letters?
It took a few minutes for a pathetic southerner like me to tune in to the strong Galway accents of Maureen and Mag when they were in full flow, but it was well worth the effort.
Intense, brutal and disquieting, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a feckin’ fine opening production from Chichester Festival Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs in the Minerva Theatre until October 2 before transferring to the Lyric, running from October 9 – November 6.