I had high hopes for this play as its writer, Martin McDonagh, wrote the fantastically witty In Bruges, so I was expecting a performance with clever dialogue and Irish charm. I was not disappointed - but what I wasn’t banking on was that it was also being a heartbreaking, dark tragedy of wasted lives, lost opportunities and the claustrophobia faced by those abandoned to life in isolation.
First performed in 1996, The Beauty Queen of Leenane tells the tale of Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster living in rural Galway as sole carer to her elderly mother, Mags. The entire play is set in the kitchen of their cottage, which both adds to the claustrophobia and monotony of their lives, and is also an ideal piece to be performed at the Burton Taylor with its limited space. We learn that Maureen’s 2 sisters have moved away and married, leaving her behind to care for the spiteful and deceptive Mags for all her adult life – she knows that life has passed her by and she feels trapped, and her feelings of desperation are made even more hopeless by Mags’ constant belittling of her, which she retaliates against by refusing the old lady simple things like a cup of tea or by serving her lumpy Complan. The co-dependency of their dysfunctional relationship is palpable, and Anna Maguire as Maureen is fantastic (although she doesn’t pass for anything remotely near 40) – the reluctantly dutiful daughter consigned to a life of misery and poverty who can only dream of escape.
Escape could finally be made possible by her old flame Pato Dooley, who reappears in her life briefly for one night but then returns to work in London after an uncomfortable morning in the company of the dysfunctional mother and daughter. It is during Pato’s appearance that we learn of Maureen’s previous history of mental illness which Mags has used against her ever since. Previous runs of this play have made Maureen’s mental illness more apparent but this play did not suffer because of the difference – it made the final twists more shocking and powerful.
When Pato reads out his letter to Maureen at the beginning of Act Two, it is so beautifully delivered and so honest and meaningful, I found myself willing Maureen to get her happy ending and felt totally compelled by the story – it was painful to watch Mags' predictable actions cancelling her daughter’s one chance of escape to happiness. Or do they? The audience is kept waiting with several plot twists at the end - in one of the final scenes, the violence is so shocking and real that I felt the whole audience flinch and the guy in front of me was physically cringing (the only criticism I have of the production is that when this action happened in front of the first row, the audience behind could not see it).
This play has been endlessly reviewed over the years and I hope I have done it some justice for those who haven’t seen it, as I thoroughly recommend it. The dialogue is fast-flowing, witty and just what I would have expected from McDonagh; the traditional Irish themes of oppression, repression and guilt are very apparent, and the overall tale of loss, deprivation, cruelty and heartache is very moving and quite devastating. The flyer states ‘This was a Very Average Production’. Actually, it is anything but.