The Beauty Queen of Leenane review – Martin McDonagh’s raging black comedy returns

Much has changed in Ireland since Martin McDonagh’s black comedy premiered in 1996, but the ramshackle Connemara hillside where this savage mother-daughter psychodrama plays out feels both petrified in perpetual darkness and newly, terribly, resonant.

This corner of Leenane – malodorous, ragged and inhabited by left-behinds – seems to be in a state of existential lockdown and every character emanates claustrophobic isolation. Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald), the middle-aged virgin living a ball-and-chain existence with her mother Mag (Ingrid Craigie) is its tortured heart, eaten up by rage and resentment towards the scheming, needy Mag.

This is a tight, neat co-production by Chichester Festival theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Rachel O’Riordan with Fitzgerald as a commanding, angry presence, her position in the world defined by small victories over her mother.

Craigie’s Mag is ostensibly unassuming and quietly manipulative but lacks the bite that might otherwise set their chemistry alight. The play comes fully alive when Pato (Adam Best), an out-of-town construction worker, enters Maureen’s life. The “morning after” scene in which Mag finds her daughter flaunting her sexual conquest is both queasy and tender.

As a slice of Irish gothic, it is at its best when characters are exposing their vulnerabilities rather than fulminating with rage or enacting violence. Fitzgerald becomes stronger as she begins to shed her hard outer layers and expose her frailties.

The romance between Pato and Maureen has a whiff of Tennessee Williams’s sexual yearning and dreams of escape, with some fine acting between Best and Fitzgerald. When Pato reads his letter to Maureen, speaking of his own loneliness and desire for connection, it is so powerfully performed by Best that it threatens to take the emotional focus away from the mother-daughter drama altogether.

Despite the grubbiness of the cottage’s interior, Good Teeth Theatre’s stage design contains poetry with its back-screen of images – the leaves, trees and sky – and the crisp, hurly burly of weather in Anna Clock’s sound design bring atmosphere.

It all begins to feel slightly schematic when the drama takes its baroque turns, emotional development replaced by a plotline whose contrivances we see coming. It is a shame when it turns from psychodrama to “psycho” drama (the fireside poker is key) but the limits in the narrative are overcome by some moving performances and we are left with the stark image of Maureen, in her mother’s chair, stranded in dismal sameness.

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