The Beauty Queen Of Leenane – review

Martin McDonagh’s early work hints at greatness to come.

★★★

Production photo of The BEauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Thetare Chichester showng Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie
Orla Fitzgerald and Ingrid Craigie in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

We’ve come to know Martin McDonagh very well over the last 25 years. Revivals of his plays The Cripple Of Inishmaan with Daniel Radcliffe and The Lieutenant of Inishmore with Aidan Turner were West End triumphs and confirmed his status as a leading playwright.

He continues to dazzle with hits like Hangmen and A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Then there are his films In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and more.

His work is notable for unpredictable storytelling, humorous dialogue and sudden violent shocks. And that’s all here in his first play The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, revived in a co-production by Chichester Festival Theatre and the Lyric Hammersmith.

The play centres on the relationship between 70 year old Mag, played by Ingrid Craigie,  and her 40 year old daughter and carer Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald). The pair are isolated in a run-down Irish village in the mid-1990s. They only have each other, and this dependency has led to a toxic, indeed abusive relationship in which each torments the other in petty, or occasionally significant, ways.

Mag empties her chamber pot into the kitchen sink each morning to the annoyance of her daughter, Maureen only buys biscuits her mother dislikes. It reminded me of the co-dependent parent-child relationship that formed the heart of the classic TV sitcom Steptoe And Son.

Mag schemes to undermine Maureen in order to keep her at home. She destroys important notes and letters. The mentally unstable daughter, having apparently sacrificed her life to perform her filial duty, crosses from care to cruelty. The relationship is dark, sinister even, but the interplay between them is also amusing.

Both actors convince in the ease of their conversation, which sounds like they have been having the same exchanges for the last 20 years, much like a Becket or Pinter play. I particularly enjoyed the animation and barely contained look of triumph that Ingrid Craigie gave when her character had secret knowledge about the truth of a situation, and mischievously led Maureen on in her lie about it. Orla Fitzgerald was tremendous whenever she tried to lord it over her mother, stepping out with hips swaying.

An absorbing look at a toxic relationship

The co-dependency is threatened when Pato appears on the scene. Although a local, he is also an outsider, having emigrated to London. England is always seen as a malign influence in this play. The country that has destroyed Ireland and continues to ruin this village. It’s a relationship perhaps not dissimilar to that of Mag and Maureen.

Pato forms a liaison with Maureen, whom he calls his beauty queen, and threatens to take her away to the promised land of America. Not if Mag has anything to do with it.  A violent and unhappy end seems inevitable.

Production photo ffrom The Beauty Queen Of Leenane at The Minerva Chichester showing Orla Fitzgerald and Adam Best
Adam Best and Orla Fitzgerald in The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

Adam Best is moving as Pato, a sad lonely man set apart from the English by his Irish village origins and by the prejudice and dangers of London’s building sites. At the beginning of act two, he writes a letter to Maureen about his life and wishes that is truly heartbreaking.

The fourth member of the cast is Kwaku Fortune who portrays Pato’s brother Ray. His main role is that of a miserable messenger but in his short scenes he convincingly illustrates the dead end nature of life in Leenane, which for him lies mainly in an obsession with Australian soaps and a surly attitude.

The set by Good Teeth Theatre was so dingy you could almost smell the urine. The rainy monotone backwall projection was appropriately bleak. The set was spread out with Mag’s armchair and a stove on one side and Maureen’s chair and kitchen area on the other. This suggested a boxing ring in which each protagonist had their corner. The sound by Anna Clock that accompanies the scenes breaks was equally desolate.

Martin McDonagh certainly has a way with words, and if The Beauty Queen Of Leenane isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny nor as original in its subject matter as his later work, it is still absorbing. Rachel O’Riordan’s production does it proud.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is performing in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until 2 October and then at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 6 October to 9 November 2021

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube 

Crave by Sarah Kane at Chichester – review

CFT production goes to the heart of Kane’s scream of despair


★★★★

Production shot of Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre
Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Four actors are standing on four travelators which are in reverse so their characters are constantly having to move forward. While in constant motion, they face front and speak, usually in a staccato sound, often in short single sentences or phrases, some of them repeated. It sounds like a spray of bullets from a machine gun.

They seem to be talking to you but they may also be talking to each other or to no-one. The travelators keep them separate, even if they are communicating, so the effect is of isolation.

Is it all the stream of consciousness of one person? Are they all dead or on their deathbeds facing a form of judgement day? There is no plot, no clear relationships, not even clearly defined characters. As someone says at one point: ‘If this makes no sense, then you understood it perfectly’. So I think I must have understood it perfectly. No matter. I certainly found it engrossing.

Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director Daniel Evans talked in his interview with me about seeing Crave in a new light because of the isolation we are all feeling at the moment. I’m sure this is true, but the director Tinuke Craig seems to have got beyond the lockdown resonance to the very heart of this play, because it’s not only about the loneliness but also the darkness of human existence.

When she wrote the play Sarah Kane offered no help in how to stage her text. It has been done in many ways, for example with the characters together in a room, but Tinuke Craig’s decision to stage Crave in this way, both in concept and the realisation in Alex Lowde’s set is genius, even if it may have been triggered by the requirements of social distancing. These anonymous traumatised characters are truly isolated and stuck on their own relentless path. “Here I am in the darkness again,’ says one. ‘On the edge of nothing’ comes the liturgical response.

You wouldn’t be surprised if this was a play by Samuel Beckett except there is none of the hope and courage that his characters show in the face of their futile situations. Here there seems to be only despair at the human condition.

I found myself deeply disturbed by this bleak view of life but could perhaps have been more moved if Kane had made her characters more like real people that I could connect with. However, I hesitate to call this a failure on her part as I assume it was a deliberate decision to disconnect them emotionally from those watching, just as they have no names, only letters A, B, C and M.

So much of what they say you might generously call aphorisms, like ‘no-one

Production shot of erin Doherty in Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre
Erin Doherty in Crave. Photo: Marc Brenner

survives life’, and there are echoes of other works, which is not a criticism. The borrowing reminded me of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. I think the poetry of this piece- and it is a poem- is not only in what is said but how it’s said. During the play someone describes poetry as ‘language for its own sake’ but the language of this poem has a kind of jagged beauty because, within its cadence, telling words about need and rejection constantly jab at you. And every so often a line really brings you up short, like: ‘What I sometimes mistake for ecstasy is the absence of grief.’

The actors were impressive. Neediness and desperation pervaded all that they did. Some of what they talked about was very upsetting. Erin Doherty‘s character referred in a sometimes strangulated voice to the rape and abuse she had received and talked about her poor self image. Jonathan Slinger’s character first announced he was a paedophile which then coloured a subsequent long and touching monologue about love which itself was later contradicted by his nasty cynicism. A mentiuion too for Alfred Enoch and Wendy Kweh. It was a bravura performance by all concerned.

‘A horror so deep only ritual can contain it’

The sound, composed by Anna Clock, comprised sawing, disjointed, low notes played on, I think, a cello. It was discomfiting but in just the right way. And Ravi Deepres’ back-projected film of images of the characters, sometimes negative or blurred, added rather than distracted. I was particularly struck by a close up of Erin Doherty’s face and the words ‘What have they done to me’ gradually appearing in writing on her skin.

When one character talked of ‘a horror so deep only ritual can contain it’, I thought of the horrors that were being contained on this occasion because they were being presented within the ritual of a play. And when I say ‘contained’, I mean only just. At the end, in quite biblical language, the characters embrace the freedom of death, and the play ends with a blackout. I was left totally wrung out.

About the screening. The process of logging in to view the event was straightforward and I was pleased that I was able to sit back and watch it on my telly with good picture quality rather than on blurry Zoom or the small screen of my laptop. The live broadcast went without a hitch when I saw it. We had front views, side views and close ups but in a way that enhanced the performance. The way the production was done had the advantage that, although it was a theatre show, it didn’t look like a film of a stage play because it could also be a movie about four people trapped in any empty space. Congratulations all round.

Performances of Crave was live streamed in November 2021. cft.org.uk

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Erin Doherty is currently playing Princess Anne in the Netflix series The Crown.