Review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lyric Hammersmith Theatre ★★★★☆

Orla Fitzgerald and Adam Best. Photo: Helen Maybanks.  
Martin McDonagh's writing has been criticised in the past for making the Irishness of the characters a part of the joke. As an Irishman, it has never been completely clear to me whether McDonagh's Irish plays are full of self-deprecating humour, or whether they are just deprecating. Tonight, I lean towards the former but the spectre of the latter remains. What is not in doubt is that, twenty-five years after its debut, McDonagh's black comedy remains as shocking as ever.

This co-production by Chichester Festival Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Rachel O'Riordan, opens in the living area of the Connemara home shared by forty-year old Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald) and her seventy-year old mother, Mag (Ingrid Craigie). The staging by Good Teeth Theatre perfectly replicates a home on the West Coast of Ireland - right down to the Sacred Heart of Jesus above the fireplace. A tree, bent double by the coastal winds, looms over the house.

Ingrid Craigie. Photo: Helen Maybanks
The signs of disharmony, or something more, are there from the beginning. Mag is scared she might scald herself, while Maureen takes Mag's porridge away from her before she is finished - scrapping it viciously into the bin. The pair's bickering is constant. The arrival of Pato (Adam Best), visiting from London, is the catalyst that ignites the relationship between the two women.

A sense of place and belonging sits at the heart of the play; “that’s Ireland, people are always leaving,” says Pato, who longs home even if it is a place he does not want to be, while Maureen wants to leave but can't, and Ray (Kwaku Fortune) just needs to decide where he's going. It is no surprise that each half of the play features a party for someone who is leaving for America. 

Orla Fitzergald and Kwaku Fortune. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Fortune works wonders with the somewhat underwritten role of Ray, Pato's blundering younger brother. His exasperation at being stuck with Mag bringing such a steady stream of laughs from the Lyric's audience that his performance could almost be described as scene-stealing, if Craigie wasn't equally as good as the butter-wouldn't-melt, devious Mag. She perfectly plays the coy way in which Mag manipulates those around her. 

Best provides a touching performance of a man who has had his own troubles and has learned to accept them, whatever they are. His reading of his letter to Maureen is tender and moving, delivered with gentle humour. As Maureen, Fitzgerald gives a performance that grows in stature as the play progresses - developing Maureen from the put-upon daughter into a woman in the the image of her mother.

The production, too, grows in stature as it progresses; the first half acting as the scene-setting; establishing the rules of play. The second half is where they play takes off, the tension increasing exponentially until the mother-daughter relationship reaches its breaking point - the audience's screams proving that the Beauty Queen of Leenane can still shock.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until 6 November.
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