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The Beauty Queen of Leenane

A Lyric Hammersmith and Chichester Festival Theatre co-production
Minerva Theatre, Oaklands Way, Chichester PO19 6AP from September 3 to October 2, 2021
Lyric Hammersmith, King St, London W6 0QL from October 9 to November 6, 2021

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on September 13, 2021
www.cft.org.uk and www.lyric.co.uk

The Beauty Queen of Leenane Orla Fitzgerald (Maureen) and Adam Best (Pato) in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. PHOTO BY HELEN MAYBANKS

It is hard to believe that it's 25 years since, with this play, Martin McDonagh was launched onto the international scene by Druid Theatre in Galway. From Galway it quickly moved to the Royal Court in London and then to Broadway where it scooped 4 Tony awards. Before long McDonagh was also winning Golden Globes and an Oscar for his film work.

A startlingly original voice in theater McDonagh's works are like a like a cross between JM Synge and Quentin Tarentino. Pop culture banalities are interlaced with traditional theatrical forms and the plays fuse a devilishly black humour with a clear-eyed plea about the human need for connection, but without any sentimentality.

The Ireland of this play, set in 1995, is all but gone. This was pre Celtic Tiger, pre Good Friday Agreement and pre ‘Equality'. The story of a widow who keeps a daughter at home to look after her in her old age was incredibly familiar in pre welfare state days and is still the norm in many a society. That co-dependency locks both into a toxic dance of death but it makes for great drama because in essence it is about two people trapped between their situation and their aspirations.

Central to McDonagh's art is how he brings a unique outside eye to Irish society. Although steeped in the Connemara culture of his parents, he was born and raised in London. Like the best art, therefore, his work is both totally particular and yet fully universal but only because he's such a master at his craft. The people represented here could be from anywhere that is in rapid decline. Any place full of mostly lonely people, hanging on. Chekhov wrote about them.

Rachel O'Riordan, who heads the Lyric Hammersmith, has directed this splendidly vivid revival, in a co-production with Chichester Theatre, and it's a wonderful reminder of what a great play this is.

The role of the mother usually goes to a bruiser, a larger-than-life character, and Ingrid Craigie, best known for more eloquent parts is rather unusual casting. She gets the manipulation and the pettiness of Mag down but does seem too frail to survive those physical battles.

Orla Fitzgerald is a stand-out as Maureen, like a young Cate Blanchett. Most will know her from BBC's The Young Offenders but here she commands the stage with a swaggering sensuality (this could be her last chance at romance and she's going to grab it) but she also lets us in to the vulnerability underneath, making her subsequent decline even more heartbreaking when it arrives.

Adam Best is perfect as Pato, the ageing love interest. The scene where he writes to her from London is unbearably poignant and a masterclass in acting, as he weaves a whole life from it. Just from one letter.

Kwaku Fortune, as Ray, Pato's younger brother and the lovers' go-between, perfectly manages to blend a naive boyish enthusiasm with adolescent petty jealousy. He gets the best lines whether it be ruminating on the Aussie soaps that dominate their TV watching or the true nature of the iconic Irish biscuit - the Kimberley.

The changes of tone may be abrupt at times, but McDonagh is also a master at structure, and you never know where he's going to take you.

The design collective Good Teeth Theatre (impossible to say if you're from Cork!) perfectly conjure up the utterly grim setting, a spartan, neglected home on the side of a bleak Connemara Mountain which is being constantly battered by wind and rain. It would set anyone's mind to murder.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane Ingrid Craigie as Mag. PHOTO BY HELEN MAYBANKS

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