The Traverse Theatre Edinburgh

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

Made in China

11/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Janet (Jo Freer) lives in Wishaw, near Glasgow. Her daughter Tash’s birthday is fast approaching and Janet is frantically trying to procure the weird selection of fripperies Tash says she simply ‘has to have’ if her party is to be a success. When she demands some novelty lights in the shape of… er, aubergines, who is Janet to argue with her? She obligingly opens the Amazon app and clicks through her order.

Meanwhile, in China, Hui Ting (Amber Lin) is working long shifts at a factory, where such dubious items are produced and packaged, before being shipped all around the world. She has much to contend with, struggling to meet her targets and constantly being fined for trivial matters – even, in one case, for having her period at an inconvenient time. But she has a powerful motive for working around the clock: she doesn’t want her daughter to end up in the same position.

And then Janet discovers a scrap of paper in her latest order, something that Hui Ting has scribbled in a rare free moment and accidentally dropped into the box. Janet decides that she needs to find out what the note means. It takes her a while but, once she has an answer, she’s compelled to reappraise the way she lives her own life…

Made in China is a deceptively simple two-hander, the latest offering from A Play, a Pie and a Pint. On a stage festooned with cardboard boxes, the women appear to work side-by-side, their lives intertwined, even though they never interact. Playwright Alice Clark cleverly draws out the fascinating parallels between the two, and shows the kind of ripple effect that can be initiated by even the most innocuous form of Western consumerism. Both Freer and Lin make their characters utterly believable. I love Janet’s snarky, self-deprecating tone and I love too that Hui Ting is not presented as saintly, but as somebody who has her own agenda and is quite prepared to bend the rules in order to achieve her goals.

Clark’s eloquently written play alternates between harsh reality and the enduring allure of dreams. Philip Howard’s direction brings this prescient piece to a satisfying conclusion. As polemics go, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in quite a while.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney

Beating McEnroe

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27/03/15

The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We enter the theatre to find a bearded man dressed in a tennis headband and a towelling bathrobe. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor silently contemplating a pile of tennis balls. As the crowd continues to shuffle to their seats, he starts to throw the balls to people and urges them to throw them back. Then, once everyone is assembled, he gets us all to chant some kind of repetitive mantra.The man is Jamie Wood and the show is Beating McEnroe, a monologue about the infamous Wimbledon showdown between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980. It’s also about how the young Jamie came to terms with always being whupped at tennis by his older brother. It’s about hero worship and the awful realisation that one day, all heroes must inevitably be bested, often by people who don’t seem to deserve the acclaim. Along the way there’s some slapstick, some dancing and some very funny visual jokes. Wood’s charming persona allows him to effortlessly manipulate the audience into helping him out, acting as his umpires, his ball boys and girls even at one point impersonating him (nice one Susan!) and his big brother. This is interactive theatre at its best and while it’s undeniably a piece of fluff, it’s fluff that’s performed with great skill and a disarming lightness of touch – enough to earn it a nomination for a Total Theatre Award at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

I had the task of tying a carton of table salt to Jamie’s head, which might sound decidedly odd, but which resulted in the funniest visual gag of the night. I felt as though somehow I had contributed to the evening and left feeling rather pleased with myself. We caught this performance at the end of it’s run at the Traverse, but those seeking a genuinely entertaining night at the theatre could do a lot worse than booking to see this at the Lowry in Salford where it plays for just one night on Saturday 28th of March. You’ll believe a man can become a human tennis ball!

4 stars

Philip Caveney