Saturday, 11 September 2021

REVIEW: The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Chichester Festival Theatre

This was Martin McDonagh's first play written in 1996 and although brought up in England by his Irish parents, he located his first few plays in County Galway where he holidayed as a child. His brilliant writing and structuring of plays were already visible in the tightly drawn “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”. He went on to write the wonderful “The Cripple of Inishmaan” which Daniel Radcliffe so brilliantly played in the West End and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” which Aiden Turner scored a hit with. We are now waiting for his first non-Irish play “The Pillowman” to come to London after the pandemic delayed its opening. Of course, he found even greater fame as the writer and director of the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” which won four golden globes. It was therefore a pleasure to see this revival at the Minera theatre in Chichester.

All his early plays depict what may be thought of as stereotypical Irish characters in fairly poor bleak settings, but his writing makes them feel real from the start and the plot development is believable despite the often dark and shocking twists and turns. He captures the lyrical phraseology of the rural Irish voices and peppers his script with meaningful pauses which add to the tension and threatening behaviours and also allow the audience just enough time to speculate on the motivations and potential outcomes. Even simple phrases such as “Lumpy Complan” (the nutritious drink) or “Do you want a Kimberley” (a local Irish Biscuit) seem to acquire threat!

Mag played with a fearsome sincerity by Ingrid Craigie is a seventy-year-old housebound mother who dominates her remaining forty-year-old daughter (the unseen ones seem to have abandoned her) into caring for her every need. Maureen played by Orla Fitzgerald is the frustrated daughter locked into servitude as her mother’s skivvy and desperately desiring to break free. However, she harbours a dark secret from her time in England and you begin to wonder who is caring for who. They make a formidable double act, as you can hear and see the tension & bullying behaviours between them, they seem determined to deliberately taunt and tease each other. At a time when social care for the elderly and mentally ill is such a hot topic and historical support networks within families are breaking down as we live longer the play has a powerful and poignant undertone.

Into this relationship arrives Pato played by Adam Best and his younger brother Ray (Kwaku Fortune). Pato aspires to escape this rural Irish life in England or America and his long friendship with Maureen (who he dubs the Beauty Queen of Leenane) is suddenly sprung into something more, that threatens the mother and daughter relationship. Ray lacks his brother’s ambition, content in his home watching TV, and reluctantly delivering messages from his brother to Maureen. Their arrival adds jeopardy to the established pattern of the routine life of the carers with shocking consequences as it plays on their fear of being left alone.

The verbal jousting plays out in a rural cottage but the challenge for designers Good Teeth Theatre is how to create this setting on the thrust stage with the audience sat on three sides. The resulting interior fails to create the claustrophobic space of a rural rundown cottage, although they capture the dilapidation, there feels too much space between the sparse furniture and the back wall with its clear screen view of the rain and trees outside adds height rather than imply the low ceiling that would have enhanced the closed-in feeling of the protagonists. Stage left is a small practical kitchen but stage right there is a traditional peat burning aga providing heat but both are essential to the story.

The sound designer Anna Clock cleverly set the scenes with the rain falling in Ireland and the contrasting noise of the hustle and bustle of the pivotal short scene set in London.

This is a gripping and at times shocking play and the tension is tautly directed by Rachel O’Riordan with an excellent cast. Having seen the play, it made more sense of seeing the cast relaxing preshow with a game of swing ball in the beautiful grounds of the Chichester Festival, both a relevant and necessary diversion for them, I am sure!

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row E | Price of Ticket: £39
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