The Beauty Queen of Leenane is set in the mountains of Connemara in County Galway, Ireland. The play is a blend of hysterical comedy, grand melodrama, violence and bleak tragedy.
It tells the darkly comic tale of Maureen Folan, a lonely woman in her early forties, and Mag, her manipulative, ageing mother.
Two sisters have escaped into marriage leaving Maureen, with a history of mental illness, trapped in a small bleak cottage and a seriously dysfunctional relationship with her mother. Her mother’s interference in Maureen’s love life puts in motion some dark and frightening consequences.
As events unfold the cottage is visited by the brothers Ray and Pato Dooley. Ray is the younger brother, an irresponsible and irrepressible young man. Pato is a construction worker fed up with his life which forces him to work in England to earn a living. A spark of romance occurs between Maureen and Pato and then fizzles out with disastrous results.
This play was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1996, then transferred to Broadway in 1998. In 2010 it was presented at the Young Vic before going on tour. The play has received various nominations and awards: it was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Play; the 1998 Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning four.
Read John Drewry’s review of the production below.
Maureen Folan Debbie Griffiths
Maggie Folan Sue Appleyard
Pato Dooley Tim Hinchcliffe
Ray Dooley Ian-Paul Munday
Director Janet Clark
Stage Manager Sandie Campbell
Set design Adrian Pope
Set construction John Heather & T62 members
Lighting Design Andrew Herbert
Sound Design Ian James
Asst Stage Manager Pieter Swinge
Props Heather London, Beryl Neal
Technical crew David Hart, Danny McIIhiney, Alice London
Wardrobe Margaret Uzzell
Prompt Nina James
Make-up & hair Jean Golder, Christine Lever, Penny Vetterlein
House Manager John Heather
Refreshments Audrey Knighton
Raffle Sandie Campbell
Box Office Margaret Uzzell
Poster/programme design Graham Copeland
Programme Editor John Guttridge
Click on each photo to enlarge:
“I’d like to open this crit on a wider scale, beyond the play, and then home in on the production itself as we proceed, because I think the backdrop might help, and provide a richer context.
This is, I believe, the sixth Theatre 62 play I’ve been asked to comment on, so either I’m doing something acceptable or Theatre 62 gets desperate every couple of years of so and can’t find anyone else. I’ll assume the former, although you’re only ever as good as your last job.
I find Theatre 62 a remarkable place. Other amateur groups seems to struggle with their programmes, their audiences are unpredictable in size, and their personalities, or rather persona, seem to constantly change, not always for the better. In this sea of troubles there appears a steady ship, limiting itself to 5 or 6 productions a year, and always looking full up – that’s the overall impression, anyway. Consistency seems to reign supreme in other areas, too. The sets are always good, the technical support serene, and the wardrobe confident. You’re probably going to tell me that if only I saw the sheer panic, frustration and general screaming behind the scenes, I would think no such thing, but there we are.
You’re also not afraid of staging more controversial plays by enfants terribles like Martin McDonagh. True, he’s been around now for some years, but to some of your audience (I know because I listened to them talking) this is new stuff.
Into this robust environment is another first. This is the only amateur group I KNOW with the courage and enlightened policy to invite a critic and live criticism. There may be others, but I don’t know of them. This is not to be confused with adjudication at amateur festivals, where everyone wins a prize because otherwise they don’t enter next year.
So that’s your creds out of the way. So far as my own creds are concerned, I was many years involved intimately with amateur theatre, both as chairman and artistic director. In more recent years, I got my Equity card for directing grand opera as well as professional theatre. I had a run through Kent of my production of Dick Barton Special Agent in 2012. I write material from time to time, most recently my one-act play NO WAY BACK, which premiered at a private function in April this year where the guests of honour were Lord and Lady Fellowes. So I’ve kind of been around, which of course is no guaranteed qualification as a theatre critic. But at least I have empathy, if not sympathy.
I have a couple of small confessions. Well, not so much confessions as a positioning statement if you like, I’ve seen Beauty Queen more than once, have read it intimately, and am a great fan of Martin McDonagh. I have some prior knowledge of the two men in the play, and little or none of the two women. Ian, I have seen on this stage on many occasions. Tim, I have seen and indeed cast on many occasions, including my production of The Fall of the House of Usher, and something I’m staging locally next month.
So adjusting the focus a little closer, the context of the play itself. With no intended racism, there is such a thing as the Irish persona, or the Irish caricature. The thick Mick is personified in Maureen’s confession to Pato in Scene 4. I promise you, to this day in Southern Ireland, you’ll hear them talk about the potato famine after a couple of draft Guinnesses. When I was there in 1986, the old boys were still going down to the Post Office to collect their IRA pensions from the 1922 debacle. The “Irish Question” has occupied much of English politics since the 19th century. There is a lot of history, most of it not good, which can produce appalling tensions to this day. The Irish mind can be as eccentric as the English mind, and has produced perhaps as many geniuses. It is a more sensitive mind in some ways, certainly a more poetic one, and can crack. Hence Maureen’s breakdown in an English environment “it all just got to me”. There’s nothing new about any of this, of course. Read J P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man for a refresh some time.
McDonagh exploits all of this. The brooding, dark tension between mother and daughter, as black as draught Guinness, in a highly restrictive and claustrophobic environment. This is why the scenes in Beauty Queen are so often staged in the dark, half-light of an Irish cottage or an Irish pub. Janet Clark took the alternative decision and bathed all the daytime scenes in strong light. It’s not a criticism. It’s a point of view. Do we weigh the audience down with the black morose side of the play by underlighting, or do we go lights, camera, action and let the words do the work? We were treated to a brightly lit production, which at least gave Adrian Pope and his merry men the opportunity to focus us on the ghastly distressed nature of some of the furniture and especially that dreadful sink with all its current history.
Then there’s the awful isolation of Irish country life. You have to shake your head for a moment when you realise McDonagh has set this play in 1989. Could just as easily have been 1959 except for the TV and the telephone. The desire to get away, epitomised as a metaphor by the young and itchy Ray “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here”. Yet although 1989 is quite recent, Beauty Queen is already a period play. Mobile phone and broadband communication technology have effectively relegated everything pre-21st Century to a period which no longer exists. Isolation is disappearing or rather being subsumed by the impression of staying in touch 24/7, wherever you may be.
It’s interesting trying to label this play. Is it a comedy, a tragedy, a farce, a drama or a melodrama? Well, it’s a director’s dream because it is all of these, meaning it’s nigh impossible to be accused of “turning it into a melodrama” or “focusing too much on the comedy”. You can pull all the stops out with this play. It’s certainly a comedy, in some ways a ritual comedy. Complan and porridge see to that. Of course it’s a tragedy. Quite apart from someone getting brutally killed, it has the structure and ingredients of tragedy. The inevitability of tragedy, knowing the vital letter is never going to arrive (the Greek black sails and white sails). It’s certainly got farce – pouring infected wee wee down the sink has the side-busting horror of true farce. By the way, I wouldn’t have been able to resist making sure that pot had been brimful, and poured very slowly and deliberately into the place where the washing up is done.
It’s a drama – overall a powerful drama, which is what gives the audience that final, satisfied feeling. They haven’t just had a good laugh. They haven’t just enjoyed the melodrama of a grisly murder scene. They’ve enjoyed the opus of a master dramaturge. There are even elements of what Beckett would call tragi-comedy – the nothingness, the bleakness, the isolation are somewhat redolent of Waiting for Godot.
I would add yet another ingredient. It has poetry. Not just in its overall construct, but much of the language itself. This is down to the use of syntax. “And the hot water too I do be scared of”, “It’s Tuesday I’ll be back there again”, “Six o’clock the news isn’t on til”, “It’s cold I am”, “Maybe it’s deaf you’re going”, etc., etc. This is not diddly-dee mock Irish invented as an affectation. It’s the construct of the Irish language in translation. Similar to a German down sitting, if you like.
Slipping in and out of the accent is a common problem for any production. I have seen and heard various degrees of success with this play. The Irish accent was handled extremely well by all of the cast. There’s always a price to pay for accents, of course. The better and more consistent they are, the more you have to be watchful of articulation and speed. There’s also an awful lot going on with this text. And sometimes what I call the sign-posting, critical messages for the audience to receive and understand, can be sacrificed to accent and character. Projection, however, was faultless throughout.
This was an excellent production. The problem always for directors is that, rather like Tolstoy’s families, you don’t notice the good ones, only the bad ones. So often satisfied audiences remember the story, particular actors, costumes, sets, but ask them whether they appreciated the lack of masking and the brow likely furrows. Other directors notice, though. The strong hand of Janet Clark was detectable throughout. I never saw any masking, and she choreographed her actors with skill. There was no unnecessary moving around for the sake of it, and quite rightly Ray was the only one jumping up and sitting down, because the character has ants in his pants. Most of the eyeball to eyeball stuff was well managed – actors generally don’t look at each other enough – you probably know the old Cagney adage – put your feet firmly on the ground, look them straight in the eye, and say the words. There was perhaps one place where fixing more with the eyes would have added considerable effect, and that was when Pato comes down in the morning to Mag’s horror and surprise. Mag looked away too often and too soon which gave away some comic opportunity – the transfixed stare can really be milked in scenes like that.
The action was all well-managed, too. One of the difficult elements to control in a play like this is the tension, like a watch-spring, resisting the temptation to explode at the wrong times. This was generally very well handled, by both the director and the actors. There really should be only two releases of tension. One is Maureen’s reaction to Mag telling Pato about her mental breakdown. The other is the burning of the hand. Both were magnificently acted. Mag’s pain was horribly real, and I saw many heads go down in the audience, unable to bear the sight or endure the screams. Equally, Maureen wanting to kill her mother on her revelation to Pato was highly convincing. I would guess as a director you used the old method – go for mother for real, and make Pato HAVE to prevent you getting to her. It was great stuff. And if you accept that the rest is unresolved tension, it will automatically control it – there was some earlier shouting which I feared would overspill, and just stayed within its boundary. Remember, the more controlled and unbearable the tension, the greater the explosion when it occurs.
I saw the production twice, on Tuesday and Friday respectively. Word control was great on both evenings. The prompt was used once on both evenings. Who cares? Only the actors, that’s who. But the audience forgives and forgets. The important thing is that the prompt is there when you need them, loud and clear, and invisible when you don’t. Always take your hat off to a good prompt, actors, they’re part of that backstage support without which you cannot function. Full marks to Nina James and her ilk, who have to sit through rehearsals and six performances like Victorian children who must not be heard. They must have the patience of Job.
The only thing I will say about the difference between Tuesday and Friday was that by Friday the comedy had been revealed. It wasn’t just a different audience. By Friday, you’d got hold of the comedy and mastered it. In a sense, anybody can burn somebody’s hand over a stove, but getting the timing and nuanced gesture right over a cup of suspicious tea takes audience exposure – no amount of rehearsal quite gets it.
Choice of music (other than the specified Delia Murphy song) was conventional Irish. Like the strong lighting the director made a decision, and that’s the important thing. I have heard deliberately discordant nails-down-blackboards stuff used to emphasise the blackness. It’s a personal choice, and not the stuff of criticism.
For me, the most evocative scene was Maureen bringing Pato back, and the chatting across the table. It was so utterly real and very moving in its way. This had to be the result of close collaboration between director and actors.
Sound cues impeccable on both nights, undoubtedly the result of another close collaboration during rehearsals and performance between Sandy Campbell and Ian James, with Pieter Jan Swinge undoubtedly providing the extra support. Andrew Herbert’s lighting was strong in every corner, no unwanted shadows, and effective in the night-time contrasts. The stove was very good. Margaret Uzzell, as always, provided an authentic feel to costume. Make-up and hair from Jean Golder, Christine Lever and Penny Vetterlain, put both ladies firmly in period. As for Adrian Pope and John Heather, I don’t know how they do it time and again. I can only suppose they breathe a sigh of relief from time to time when a director decides he or she will produce in the round.
The set was simply great. A lot of care in the detail, including, as I said earlier, distressing certain items for seedy authenticity. The bright lighting made parts of the set look a little clean, largely a psychological effect, I think.
So, to the performances themselves. There are two characters in this play and two caricatures. Pato and Maureen the characters, book-ended by the two caricatures, Ray and Mag. It is this construct which provides the melodrama. The caricatures manipulate the characters, one consciously, the other selfishly. It is important to grasp this, because it provides the fulcrum to the production – and it defines the caricatures. Ray must be played as an impatient, self-centred young man. It is his lack of care which creates the inevitable tragedy. Mag epitomises the manipulative, evil old woman, again self-centred. The only power Mag doesn’t have is the physical power. When she oversteps the manipulation, Maureen’s physical power takes over. Trapped in this maelstrom are our two doomed lovers.
Ian-Paul Munday has come a long way. Ray’s impatience, frustration, impetuosity and physical restlessness were studied and effective. So was his bravado, his obsession with owning the poker so he could clobber a few coppers, redolent of Irish disenchanted youth. Like most disenchanted youth, he just doesn’t have enough to do. He wants to keep moving but has no direction. I enjoyed his performance.
Then we have manipulative Mag. This is a difficult part. She gets all the great words, of course, but this character has to play to the audience as well as to the cast. We need to wonder, maybe even anticipate with a certain relish, what evil piece of chicanery is going to come out of that mouth next. Behaving at times like a helpless child, this is a dangerous character who will destroy anything to get her wicked way. I though Sue Appleyard’s playing to the cast was excellent. But she could have done more with the audience, you know the kind of thing – the Princess Diana eyes from her early days, even the secret smile from time to time, purely for the audience to see. We need to conclude absolutely that she deserves everything she gets, God forgive us. The actress needs to convey absolutely that she’s in charge, the centre of power. In a way, Sue’s acting was too real, she gave the impression sometimes of being truly buffeted by events rather than pretending to be. Overall though, her performance was compelling.
Tim Hinchliffe revelled in his John Le Mesurier impersonation. I’m being slightly flippant. It was an excellent performance. The self-effacing, mobile eyebrowed, laid-back Irish drawl worked rivetingly. The speech opening the second act was handled expertly. I have seen this read, rather than acted as a stream of consciousness, but it’s not the right way, and Tim got a well-deserved round of applause on the Friday. I would have led an applause on the Tuesday if I’d been an ordinary audience member. The speech itself, however, contains a potential trap. In a rambling awkward text, we learn that poor old Pato couldn’t rise to the occasion. If the audience misses this, or is an alpha-sleep and not paying absolute attention, it is unlikely to be picked up in the confrontation later on between Mag and Maureen towards the end.
The thing we directors and actors must never forget is that generally the audience sees it once, whereas we live with it for 6, 8 or even 12 weeks. It is desperately important therefore for the director and the actor to ensure that overt signposting is used in critical places. Sometimes you have it spell it out. If you doubt what I say, do what I do and try some vox pop audience research. Ask a member of the audience why Maureen kills her mother. The kind of answer you get is “Because she’s off her rocker. Because she can’t stand any more berating. Because her mother derided her lack of sexual experience.” You can further prompt with the question “What critical thing did Mag learn from reading Pato’s letter to Maureen?” The typical answer you get is “That Pato wanted to take Maureen to America”. It is rarely you’ll get “That Pato couldn’t get it up”. Audiences have a singular, linear experience lasting about 90 minutes. There is no chance to rewind. For this reason it’s a good discipline to identify, right from the start of rehearsals, the crucial milestone messages that MUST be got across, and to practise forms of emphasis accordingly.
Finally, we come to Maureen herself, played by Debbie Griffiths. This, I think, will be the shortest character crit. I saw Marie Mullen play it 17 years ago at the Royal Court, and I think Debbie’s performance was better. It was exemplary. She played downtrodden, resentful, passionate, insane, repressed, sexy and hard, all in the right places. The accent was faultless. Her contribution, along with everyone else’s, ensured this was the best production I have seen at Theatre 62. I’m able to make only one recommendation, which is a general one. Start acting five yards before you get on stage (unless you’re Dustin Hoffman, who starts five weeks before). Entering on stage and then starting to act is always awkward. In several scenes, this was covered by the script with voices off. But if, for example, you’re coming in from the cold or the rain, make sure you’re suffering before we see you.”