There can’t be many plays where lumps in a mug of Complan are used as metaphors for the less-than-smooth relationship between a mother and her daughter.
In Tony Cownie’s crackling and well-paced direction of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, such mundane items and routines pile like straws upon Maureen’s (Cara Kelly) back as she tends to the demands of her manipulative mother Mag (Nora Connelly).
All the action takes place in the pair’s small and untidy front room (in an impressive elevated set placed upon a pile of dark and gloomy earth). This setting is a prison for Maureen; a sanctuary for Mag. When a brief encounter with charismatic and charming Pato (John Kazek) promises escape for Maureen, the already-straining tension between mother and daughter threatens to snap, with unpredictable consequences.
Whilst this may sound a bleak and depressing premise, McDonagh’s sharp dialogue ensures that The Beauty Queen of Leenane is injected with a black, twisted streak. Set in a small town in Galway, Maureen, Mag, Pato and his younger brother Ray (Dylan Kennedy) all speak with a unique tone and syntax. Although strange at first, the audience’s ear soon becomes attuned to it; whilst always present, it swiftly sounds natural – almost poetic – and takes on a character all of its own.
Kelly and Connolly are at the core of the play, and their performances are excellent. Kelly crackles as the frustrated and downtrodden Maureen, at times spitting acid-tongued insults at her decrepit mother; at others daydreaming about what her life could have been. As she gazes at the ceiling imagining meeting a suitor at Mag’s wake, her eyes sparkle with impossible hope and Kelly captures the character’s tragic, stifled situation in a convincing and heartfelt performance.
Connolly also excels as the manipulative Mag, her expressions and poses playing to the gallery for maximum comedic effect; her darker actions of selfish betrayal also carried out in subtle and powerful fashion. Kazek exudes at first stereotypical Irish swagger and charm, though this is soon replaced by caring compassion and love. Pato is a simple man with simple dreams and Kazek makes him instantly likeable. Kennedy provides a great deal of comic relief as the delinquent Ray; giving him a marvellously natural teenage arrogance and attitude as he unwittingly adds to the play’s confusions and misunderstandings.
McDonagh has been referred to as the “Irish Tarantino”, and the description is apt: the sharp dialogue; the bizarre anecdotes; and the idiosyncratic themes running throughout. In another similarity, the action can turn from moments of well-observed, black comedy into horrific acts of violence without warning. As such, The Beauty Queen of Leenane may not appeal to those of a delicate disposition; for most, however, it will be an absolute delight – a lumpy mixture of blistering humour, excrutiating tension, heartrending tragedy and compelling performances.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs until 13 March at the Lyceum Theatre.
More details, including ticket prices and information, are available at the Lyceum website.