Set in a small town in County Galway, Martin McDonagh’s play is dark, beautiful and dangerous, like a starlit whirlpool.
I say starlit whirlpool… it takes place in a chilly rural cottage atop a muddy hill, and opens with rain cascading down its exterior. This is not classical beauty. Neither is its protagonist Maureen, a 40-year-old woman seemingly doomed to care for her cantankerous, commanding, manipulative mother until the end of time.
Rosaleen Linehan as the bitter, wizened old lady who has pride in her urine infection is about as dislikeable as it is possible to be short of committing genocide. Her controlling evil-stepmother-esque ways of keeping Maureen hers forever as a Complan and porridge-preparing servant are bile-inducing. This is not a familial relationship, this is some kind of twisted co-dependent torture.
Into the relationship comes the chance of hope for Maureen, in the form of a local man with prospects away from Leenane, Pato Dooley. With his arrival, awkward tenderness floods into this love vacuum and the plain becomes beautiful, warmth comes into the home. But even this chance of happiness becomes a playing card in the game of one-upmanship being played by mother and daughter.
There are few writers better than McDonagh at finding humour in the bleakest of situations and The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, which was first staged in 1996, is no exception. Amid the violence and hatred, the chip fat and bed pans, McDonagh finds that black comedy that makes you wonder whether you really should be laughing. Is wishing death ever a giggle-inducer? Well, in McDonagh’s hands, yes.
Along with the emotional pain and the physical pain, the play also touches on the national pain; the locals forced to leave Ireland in search of work but being unable to find anywhere else to call home, the sense that for some change will never come and their future is predestined.
Bleak, touching, hilarious and sometimes too painful to watch, this revival, the first in London since the play premiered, had the first night audience audibly wincing, gasping and laughing in equal measure.