This revival of Martin McDonagh’s first play takes us back to the mid-1990s, when the British-Irish playwright was in his twenties - long before his Oscar nominations for the movies ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’. ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ is a fierce and gloomy work, giving us a rural Ireland of savage stasis, a grim no man’s land where talk of faraway London and Boston looms as heavily as the skeletal tree that scrapes the window above the set of Rachel O’Riordan’s compassionate, tense production.
We’re in a scrappy kitchen, and we won’t leave it. An elderly mother, Mag (Ingrid Craigie), and middle-aged daughter, Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald), carp at each other, with talk of Complan, porridge, pee in the sink and who’s the more hard-done-by of the two. It’s hard to know who’s the victim and who’s the bully here. Who’s most vulnerable? Who’s most scheming? Who’s crazy? Is anyone? It’s a dysfunctional relationship that Craigie and Fitzgerald draw us into with the help of McDonagh’s crafty writing that delights in covering up as much it reveals: perhaps a little too much so when its oblique style comes face to face with some sharp or simplistic story turns.
The power of McDonagh’s play is more in the playful language and stifling atmosphere than the plotting, which is engineered to take us nowhere. There’s a promise of escape - and a welcome release of energy – when Pato (Adam Best) visits from England and woos Maureen. He’s the life she could have had, perhaps. A neighbour, Ray (Kwaku Fortune), lets the air in too with occasional visits, although his main role is to twist the plot in various directions and remind us of the awful daytime Australian soap operas (remember ‘Sons and Daughters’?) that were filling the void of the church’s retreat in many Irish imaginations.
Most compelling is the Beauty Queen herself, Maureen, who Fitzgerald plays as the embodiment of ruptured dreams and failed promise - a strangely seductive enigma until McDonagh’s play no longer allows her to be.
It’s now 25 years since this play was first staged, and you come away hoping that this Ireland has faded but knowing that the terrible relationship at its heart is about so much more than a particular time or place.