A comedy of mothers, daughters, and lovers. And porridge.Johannes Hjorth

The action of The Beauty Queen of Leenane centres around 40 year old Maureen and her mother Mag, and takes place entirely in their dingy, claustrophobic kitchen. To say that Mag and Maureen have their differences would be an understatement. Mag is manipulative and unyielding, Maureen is bitter and isolated. Yet a real tragedy unfolds between them: Maureen has sacrificed her youth to look after a woman she loathes, a woman whom she believes is much more capable of looking after herself than she lets on; Mag for her part seems to delight in keeping her daughter trapped, revelling in Maureen’s aimless and unfulfilled life.

The genius of this play is that our sympathies are constantly changing – one minute we feel for Mag’s plight, the next Maureen’s. We’re presented with a view of a hopelessly damaged relationship, hostile yet interdependent, which we are not encouraged to judge. That being said, the relationship between Mag and Maureen was not portrayed as strongly as it might have been. Posey Mehta (Mag) was very difficult to understand, a problem arising not so much from a strange accent as from diction. Martha Murphy (Maureen) put in a solid performance that captured the conflicting parts of Maureen’s character – simultaneously violent and naïve, fragile yet brutal. However, I still felt that the two women could have done more to extract the humour from their roles – in the uncompromisingly nasty dialogue between the two women, there are plenty of laughs, but it sometimes felt as if they were both holding back a bit. With the kind of black humour presented here, the actors need to fully commit to it, or else it gets lost entirely.

The two male actors, Ben Walsh and Tom Ingham, put in very entertaining performances which they played at exactly the right tone for the piece. Ingham’s Ray is the dim-witted younger brother of Walsh’s Pato, and for me, his scenes were the highlight of the play. Whether he’s asking Mag to buy her poker so that he can murder a few policemen, wondering if ‘Wagon Wheels’ count as biscuits or bars, or giving off to Maureen for stealing his swingball years ago, his presence on stage was always enjoyable. Ray is an important character because his moments of comic relief are really needed to lift the otherwise uncomfortable atmosphere of nihilism and aimlessness that pervades the play.

I know that with exams looming few people want to spend too much time in the theatre, and many will be likely to pick Othello as their one play to see this week. I encourage you to think again. The Beauty Queen of Leenane may be an odd play, not quite as funny as some of McDonagh’s later work, and yet with many of his familiar character types and themes. Despite its flaws, there are moments of genuinely brilliant humour - some of it playful, most of it dark and distasteful, all of it extremely enjoyable.

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