Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 21 July, 2010

This, Martin McDonagh’s first play, announced him in 1996 as a theatrical equivalent to the Pogues: English-raised but of Irish heritage, and remaking traditional material into a new creation that blended a strong lineage with contemporary vibrancy and a horse-doctor’s dose of irreverence. A decade and more of familiarity with the strategy has not lessened the effect of The Beauty Queen Of Leenane. The story of selfish, manipulative 70-year-old Mag Folan and Maureen, the 40-year-old daughter she has effectively chained to their rural Galway cottage for 20 years as her carer and who is far from on an even psychological keel herself, is presented with a keen ear for southern Connacht locutions and an imagination that revels infectiously in bad taste. It is as if John Millington Synge had written Psycho.

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins gets maximum mileage out of the sense of claustrophobia of the single cottage-kitchen location, with designer Ultz providing a set that, characteristically, is clever but goes a bit too far. We enter the reconfigured auditorium through veils of rain spattering against sheets of polythene, which flank the ceilinged playing area itself; there is even a grassy area which can hardly be seen as folk enter and exit by the cottage’s main door, but we get to pass on our own entrances.

The central performances come from a pair of masterly Irish actresses. As Mag, Rosaleen Linehan has a set of features and an expressive skill that allow her to look innocent, pathetic, vindictive and furtive all at once. Susan Lynch has moved on from her sinister-siren early days: she can still evoke the dark heart that underlies so many of her roles, yet can now combine it with a genuine pathos and a sense that Maureen could well merit the title “the beauty queen of Leenane”, as she is dubbed by neighbour Pato, whose affection seems to offer her an escape.

McDonagh’s writing and Hill-Gibbins’ staging alike know the value both of charm and shock, of suddenness and exquisite inevitability, whether the latter concerns Maureen’s dashed hopes or Mag’s chamber pot emptied into the sink. As well as being delicious in its own right, it makes one impatient for a British premiere of McDonagh’s latest (and first American-set) play, A Behanding In Spokane.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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