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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Young Vic Theatre  Summer 2010; Summer 2011

Martin McDonagh is the Joe Orton of violence and depravity, continually flirting with the borders of taste and shock while frequently being laugh-out-loud funny in the process.

He writes black comedies that keep getting blacker and blacker, repeatedly startling audiences who may just have gotten over the trauma of discovering how disturbingly depraved his characters can be when they suddenly get a whole lot weirder.

Comparatively little that is visually disturbing happens in The Beauty Queen of Leenane (unlike the Lieutenant of Inishmore, which at one point is awash in stage blood), but if you don't want your worst fears about just how nasty humans can get validated, this might not be the play for you.

On the other hand, the promise of having your worst fears validated, in a spirit of jolly enjoyment, may be exactly what attracts you to this very dark comedy.

In a tiny Irish village live an old lady and the fortyish virgin daughter chosen by the family to give up her own life to care for her. We first encounter them bickering with the bitterness-mixed-with-boredom that comes from having played out every argument a hundred times before, or scoring small points off each other in ways (mother demanding to be served things she's perfectly capable of getting for herself, daughter deliberately leaving lumps in the porridge) that the victim can almost salute while keeping mental score.

But just as we've settled in to enjoying these harmless rituals, things get nastier. Mother withholds an invitation to a rare party from daughter, daughter rubs mother's nose in her own rare sexual activity, mother counters with something truly cruel, daughter parries. And as the audience gasps at each new atrocity, the two characters come closer and closer to the line separating anger from real insanity - and perhaps even cross it.

And that is actually very funny, even while it is being shocking and scary - that's what McDonagh is all about.

My first thought on seeing Ultz's set for this Young Vic revival was that it was too big and clean for the claustrophobic quality the play wants. But the designer and director Joe Hill-Gibbins knew what they were doing, lulling us into a false sense that this was going to be a safely light-hearted comedy, so the journey into the heart of darkness is all the more disturbing.

Rosaleen Linehan knows the old lady inside and out, and can make the smallest gesture or flick of the eyes tell volumes about her neediness and malice, while also keeping her human enough that she never quite loses all our sympathy.

Susan Lynch takes the daughter on a different arc, from appearing the wholly sympathetic victim, through ups and downs of hope and despair, to something awfully close to true madness.

As a local ageing bachelor who improbably pays court to the daughter, David Ganly lets us see past the man's crudeness and awkwardness to discover one of nature's born gentlemen, while Terence Keeley nicely fleshes out a local lad blessedly blind to the dramas and melodramas around him.

Like the best of Orton, The Beauty Queen of Leenane makes you feel vaguely naughty to be enjoying yourself - but naughtiness can be a lot of fun.

July 2011:  The only footnote to add to the 2011 revival is that a mainly new cast - Derbhle Crotty as the daughter, Frank Laverty as the suitor and Johnny Ward as the boy - are at least as fine as the originals, while Rosaleen Linehan remains an evil delight as the mother, so that the play's power, both comic and horrific, is undeminished.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Beauty Queen of Leenane - Young Vic 2010