Over recent years Leicester’s Curve has worked its way backwards through the dramatic canon of Martin McDonagh, with artistic director Paul Kerryson directing in turn The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore and now this, McDonagh’s first major play.
While a somewhat simpler play, telegraphing its surprises and circles more obviously than its successors, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is already classic McDonagh: moments of shocking violence, ambiguous morality, and a sense of abandonment and paralysis linking his characters to an idea of the Irish psyche.
Mags (Nora Connolly) and her daughter Maureen (Michele Moran) battle for supremacy in a kitchen-lounge that has clearly not changed in years, where a television sits on a damp floor and a coal stove distributes its fumes into the living area. Mags, nursing a scalded hand and a gammy hip, occupies a rocking chair, while Maureen moves constantly between shelves and cupboards, kettles and hobs, working constantly.
The resemblance to Beckett’s Endgame is obvious, though here there is no possibility of the situation enduring. As Maureen fantasises about serial killers tearing off Mags’s head, local boy Ray (Andrew Macklin) offers a fiver for the pair’s heavy poker, and – in an agonising sequence – Mags burns Maureen’s chance at a new life after having revealed her daughter’s past institutionalisation, it becomes clear that there are few ways this can end. Yet under Kerryson’s direction, Connolly and Moran negotiate a fine balance, both building and squandering sympathy to leave a bitter and bleak aftertaste.
Connolly is relentless, repeating questions constantly and demanding a fresh coffee even after calling her daughter a whore. She pours pans of urine down the sink and shows clear cunning in persuading the frustrated and antsy Ray to hand over Maureen’s letter from his brother Pato. Yet there is vulnerability in the performance showing both her terror of her daughter and her terror of losing her. Moran has the more difficult job as the bitter and repressed Maureen, who brings Pato back to the house after a party but insists on making him tea, cleaning and offering biscuits before finally, in a sudden snap, throwing herself bodily at him. If Mags is undeniably frustrating, Maureen’s trauma is slipping seamlessly from trapped rage to delusion, and Moran captures beautifully her final aching realisation that Leenane is the only home she will ever know.
Stephen Hogan as Pato is both catalyst and identification figure, caught between the accusations and revelations. His bumbling attempts to make sense of the relationship between mother and daughter are both amusing and fruitless, yet Hogan provides a stolid performance that offers legitimate hope and balance, a believable match for Maureen and a loss after his premature departure to Boston.
Hogan’s highlight is his emergence from the audience to narrate a naive and confusedly written letter to Maureen, an emotional and sincere missive that takes a painfully long time to burn under Mags’s eyes. He is contrasted by his mocking younger brother, kicking around Mags’s kitchen petulantly and becoming enthused only by Sons and Daughters and the possibility of a move to England.
There is still room for improvement. The cast seemed thrown on press night by a rogue door that refused to slam shut, a problem in a play where this is a key indicator of interpersonal shifts. More importantly, the moments of released tension in sex and violence feel awkward. This is a drama built on finely paced tension and waiting, and the payoffs as the audience realise what both women are capable of are more underwhelming than they might be, particularly the visceral torture scene of scalding where the idea is far more horrific than the presentation. Nonetheless, Curve’s ongoing relationship with McDonagh’s work continues to bear fruit, resulting here in an affecting, depressing and finely acted revival.