Paul Carroll

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

19/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m a huge fan of Martin McDonagh, both as a playwright and a film director. In Bruges may just qualify as my favourite movie of all time and, on one memorable occasion, I travelled from Manchester to London to catch his play, Hangmen, where I very nearly witnessed the accidental hanging of actor Johnny Flynn. But somehow, in all my years of reviewing, I’ve never managed to see a production of McDonagh’s debut play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Until now. To say that I’m excited about seeing it would be an understatement. So… no pressure, Rapture Theatre.

Maureen (Julie Hale) is forty years old, and living with her elderly mother, Mags (Nuala Walsh), in a grubby cottage in the wilds of Connemara. It’s a thankless existence, forever mashing up her Ma’s daily Complan and preparing bowls of lumpy porridge, while listening to the stream of malignant chatter the old woman spews out. Then one day, their obnoxious neighbour, Ray (Ian O’ Reilly), drops by with what passes for exciting news in these parts. Ray’s older brother, Pato (Paul Carroll), is coming over from London to attend a family celebration, and Maureen and Mags are invited along.

Maureen has long had a soft spot for Pato. Could his presence offer the possibility of romance she’s always dreamed of? Decked out in a brand new dress and some high heeled shoes, Maureen makes her play for Pato and it begins to look as though all her prayers might be answered. But then there’s the awkward question of what will happen to Mags, should Maureen decide to leave Leenane…

This is a debut piece and, while it might not have the assuredness of some of McDonagh’s later works, it nonetheless displays all the hallmarks of an exciting new talent flexing his muscles. The influence of Harold Pinter is surely there in the awkward pauses, the repetitions, the elevation of innocuous comments to a weird form of poetry – and McDonagh’s ear for the Irish vernacular is already finely tuned. As if setting out his territory for future exploration, there’s a shocking moment of violence that comes out of left field in unflinching detail.

There’s also a moment of revelation, which obliges me to go back and reconsider something I thought I already knew…

The performances here are exemplary and it’s perhaps unfair to single out one in particular, though I do relish Walsh’s personification of Mags: forever watchful, sly, and secretive, simultaneously Maureen’s warden and her tragic victim. This is an elegy about loneliness and subjugation, the perils that lie in wait for those who seek to escape – and a warning to be very, very careful what you wish for.

For me, The Beauty Queen of Leenane has been a long time coming, but it is well worth the wait.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney