Perhaps the ‘ideal’ reviewer for a play is one who’s coming to it fresh, no preconceptions, no foreknowledge, just ready to describe its contours for the reader like it’s an alien artefact that landed buzzing upon the stage in front of them. For this play… that’s not me. Full disclosure, I’ve had more repeat viewings of this play than is entirely healthy, after seeing it a few dozen times working as an usher on the Young Vic production a good decade back, and it’s under my skin and lodged deep in my brain now.
There aren’t many plays you could watch that many times and come away still loving them, but Beauty Queen really is a beaut: a wonderfully-well crafted horror story disguised as a kitchen sink drama, unfolding in an isolated cottage in rural Galway, the rain always pattering away outside.
It’s full of unforgettably silly, funny bits of humour too. I think a lot about why Martin McDonagh is so… earwormy as a playwright. Why are so many bits of his plays so quotable? I mean I saw Hamlet dozens of times too, but I rarely turn to phrases from it (admittedly I strive not to be the “lo, I shalt regale thee with some Shakespeare” kinda critic) in the same way – in that gentler, almost accidental “why do I sometimes become accidentally Irish” sense.
It’s partly his eye for telling little details, like the Complan, Kimberley biscuits and porridge that form the stuff of Maureen and Mag’s lives in Beauty Queen of Leenane, as they uncaringly look after each other in a rural Galway cottage. This is a cramped play where small objects (a mug of tea, a letter) cause huge conflicts between this housebound mother and the daughter who’s desperate for escape. It’s partly repetition: he’s a master of both building routine, and of the bravura callback – not least the swingball that bounces back so masterfully at the story’s climax. And it’s partly the way that every little twee, mundane detail is jabbed into your brain with the playwriting equivalent of some kind of rusty and aggressive farmyard implement – his writing is sharp, nasty, and structured with incredible sturdiness.
So anyway, that’s probably why I mutter “cats get in – they do go to the sink” cryptically to myself as I clean the kitchen, but to fully understand why, you’ll have to take yourself to Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.
Admittedly, this production of Beauty Queen doesn’t quite have the nastiness of McDonagh at his best and/or worst. Director Rachel O’Riordan allows Mag and her furious daughter Maureen to be nice people, which they shouldn’t be – Ingrid Craigie feels too close to a nice old woman, and Orla Fitzgerald has more bite to her but still a veneer of wholesomeness – and that means that when they do villainous things, they have to fall back on slightly overegged devices (at one point Maureen does a full on Wicked Witch of the West cackle). These characters aren’t evil, but they should feel contorted into twisted and unpleasant shapes by the environment they’ve been forced to live in, like frogs that get trapped in a tree trunk as part of some arcane ritual and then freed, decades later.
The design by newly formed company Good Teeth (James Perkins and Victoria Smart) has a clear logic to it: dilapidated cottage below, artfully-bleak forest glimpsed through tall Grand Designs-esque windows above. It’s almost too beautiful, and doesn’t quite serve the story: combined with Kevin Treacy’s lighting design, which keeps things overly light during the more horrible latter scenes.
But what this production does nail (so to speak) is the chemistry between Maureen and her almost-lover Pato – Craigie and Adam Best’s wonderfully awkward morning-after scene is hilarious. And Best makes thoughtful, serious work of some of the play’s more thoughtful, serious bits too. Beauty Queen is about the torment of nuclear family but it also documents the still more strained association between the tradition and beauty of Ireland on the one hand, and the lure of work in England and Boston on the other – Leenane is a place that makes people strange, but Pato and Maureen’s experiences in England leave a horrible mark, too. This production has horrors that go beyond the obvious: the humiliation of being a badly-treated migrant worker, the parallel humiliation of being old and dependent on a resentful young person for every creature comfort. O’Riordan skews the balance a little here, away from fairytale, towards the grimness of the kind of mutual dependency the pandemic locked so many people into.
Thinking about seeing Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Young Vic back in 2011 soaks me in a nostalgia as thick as autumn drizzle: I find myself thinking about Ultz’s astonishing design, with real grass and rain and a stove that pulled your eyes as though they already knew what horrible events would revolve around it. I don’t know if that nostalgia has helped me write this review: probably not. So I guess I’ll have to finish by saying – go, embed it in your own memory – and good luck getting it out.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is on at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until 6th November 2021. More info and tickets here.