With two West End shows last year, Martin McDonagh is also back in vogue on the fringe as two productions of his early play The Beauty Queen of Leenane opened in London within a week of each other, one at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch and the second at the new home of The Tower Theatre Company in Stoke Newington. McDonagh’s very particular brand of black comedy, at once cartoonish in its characterisation with undertones of violence, is skillfully balanced with an affecting pathos, bringing out the play’s central themes of mental illness, Irish identity and the broken dreams of youth that irreparably change the lives of the Folan family.
The Tower Theatre company has existed for more than eight decades but this inaugural seasons at its new permanent venue is clearly setting a standard for the future with well received productions of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit for Halloween, with Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living concluding the autumn season in the run-up to Christmas. With a focus on comedy so far, this third production The Beauty Queen of Leenane seems perfectly suited to the intimacy of the Tower Theatre auditorium where the stationary setting of the Folan family kitchen feels warm and intimately inviting, belying the ferocity of resentment between mother and daughter.
With the exception of the awful A Very Very Very Dark Matter, McDonagh draws his characters in full bloodied glory, they are inherently comic in behaviour, attitudes, circumstance and language yet they never realise the degree of their own folly. And McDonagh’s gift for social observation makes them both tangible representations of recognisable archetypes and grounded enough to endure credible emotional experiences that sustain the drama of the story.
Here, the central character Maureen is overshadowed by her demanding and only partially lucid mother who sits in a rocking chair demanding cups of tea, bowls of porridge and regular doses of Complan. Instantly we note a long-established scenario, a routine of dependency and expectation between two women who long ago came to terms with their personal shackles. The drama emerges from the ways in which McDonagh upsets that dynamic by bringing back childhood love Pato (who has been working in England) to give mother and daughter a simultaneous hope and fear of what a new and very different future could hold for them both.
The obsession with the long effect of the past and how it shapes the very basis and structure of village life is at the heart of McDonagh’s play in which several characters explore the effects of some kind of loss in earlier years that continues to afflict and limit their current lives. In Colette Dockery’s production there is a sense of the characters being frozen in time, with only memories of a better era and fantasies of what life might have been to give them comfort.
There is a notion – as you find in Brian Friel’s work – of past and future colliding, of a rural, confined Ireland clashing with the urban possibilities of the city and often of overseas migration. While both Maureen and Pato cling to a romantic memory of their teenage love for one another and seek to reclaim an opportunity they once lost to be together, the characters also symbolise the very different paths open to young people to either remain in their communities and become their parents or to move away – even to the dreaded shores of England – where they can shake-off the traditions and expectations of their families.
The tragedy of McDonagh’s play lies in the essential inability to reconcile Pato’s symbolic role as both past and future which is strongly conveyed in Dockery’s interpretation; to Maureen her romantic longing for Pato is an escape from the drudgery of her daily life as virtual slave to her mother’s whims, yet the reality of the man she yearns for and his true nature and life beyond the village barely occurs to her. Even after their night together and when the possibility of moving to Boston is raised by letter, Maureen speaks of it in fantasy terms, as though imagining something that will never be just as she had earlier goaded her mother about similar daydreams that she enjoys to wile away the hours on the farm.
There are other smaller moments pertaining to the same theme; neighbour Ray bemoans the loss of a swing ball set as a child and continues to feel the same degree of anger at its loss while Mother Mag complains about the petty long-held grudges held by the people in the area. The claustrophobic setting of the kitchen in the small Tower Theatre space easily suggests both the limited daily activity that creates a disproportionate primacy of domestic matters for a place in which very little else happens, and the emphasis on local tradition and expectation that maintains this particular way of life regardless of the occasional intrusion of the outside world – the final scene in which the old ways reassert themselves by claiming the next generation is a strong and meaningful conclusion to this production.
McDonagh also plays with our expectations about age and mental health using the character of Mag as both the play’s anchor around which much of the action circulates, allowing her to force some of the plot developments by choosing to destroy and conceal crucial information from her daughter. In this Tower Theatre production the sympathies and expectations subtly shift between the characters and while it is Mag who initially seems to be the most troubled due to her age, relative infirmity and total reliance on her daughter for sustenance, Dockery shows us not only how calculated Mag can be but that it is, in fact, Maureen whose grasp of reality is challenged by the events of the play, a sympathetic tragedy that has tones of A Streetcar Named Desire full of the unfulfilled sexuality of a woman on the cusp of middle age.
And much of this is shaped by the failure of communication within The Beauty Queen of Leenane which has to retain its early 1990s setting to allow the stunted transfer of information to retain its credibility. Phillip Ley’s set is a aged farm kitchen, still welcoming and cosy but far from its best, even a tad deprived with features that wouldn’t have been updated for many decades. The story depends on the failure of communication where letters are intercepted and destroyed before the addressee can read them, and Ley ensures there are no phones or other means of contact with the outside world – except an old TV on which only Australian soaps of the era (The Sullivans and A Country Practice) are shown while Mag waits for the news that never comes. The almost Beckettian purgatory situates the play in a very particular time period while opening-up the possibility of mix-up and failure that Dockery shows is both farcical and tragic.
Part of the creation of this world comes through the language that McDonagh employs for each of the characters, often using dialect to develop a rapid back and forth with characters firing lines at one another as the tension builds. Dockery’s control of the changing tensions within the play uses the rhythm and cadence of McDonagh’s dialogue to great effect as the plot weaves between bitter exchanges between mother and daughter, to a sweet love scene between Maureen and Pato in the second section, building to the wistful devastation of the finale. None of this ever takes away from or undermines the sharpness of McDonagh’s black comedy resulting in a production that is both wickedly funny and quietly moving.
Amanda Waggott ages-up to play the troublesome Mag, a seemingly confused and demanding 70 year old incapable of taking care of herself, but there is a purposeful cruelty beneath the surface in Waggott’s performance, a sense that Mag is manipulating those around her at every point rather than genuinely requiring their care. There is a touch of Mrs Overall on occasion, but Waggott conveys a sense of Mag’s surface identity, using her physical frailty to hide a calculating streak that wants to hold on to her daughter’s attention at all cost, yet when Mag complains of Maureen’s ill treatment and abusive behaviour there is ambiguity over whether she’s telling tales or telling the truth.
Julia Flatley is a superb Maureen in a complex role that changes considerably across the course of the play taking the character from disgruntled carer and farm hand to tragic heroine whose grasp of reality is shattered by her proximity to true love. Flatley makes Maureen largely sympathetic, a woman trapped in her own life watching from the sidelines as her sisters and former love depart for new lives beyond the village and hopelessly resenting the care of her mother, circumstances which credibly underscore her own viciousness. The joy at seeing Pato again visibly lights her up and Flatley is particularly good in the moments between the expression of this fantastical happiness and the grim reality of Maureen’s existence, twisting the knife by parading her good fortune in front of her mother. As Maureen is driven to desperation to cling to that fleeting future, Flatley’s performance of the collapse of those illusions becomes both violent and full of emotional intensity, it’s pure Tennessee Williams.
The male characters in McDonagh’s play are mere ciphers for the final breakdown of the relationship between the Folans. Nick Cannon as Pato develops a great chemistry with Flatley that suggests the desperate longing and long-held passion between two people finally coming together, but Cannon adds a hint of indecision, of a man keeping his options open that makes the play’s final blows so savage. Simon Brooke is very funny as local Ray, the messenger of the story whose choices determine the fate of the two women at the centre. Brooke’s Ray is an innocent in many ways, unaware of the role he’s playing – and being maneuvered into – yet through his conversations with Mag emphasises some of the themes of national identity, community and tradition that suffuse McDonagh’s work.
The energy in this production dips very slightly in the final third in the run-up to the more confident conclusion and the silent black out of the fairly speedy scene changes – which are difficult to avoid on a static set – do interrupt the flow and there may be a way to imagine a neater transition from one to the next. Yet the skill with which this production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane has been developed clearly demonstrates a theatre company with a revitalised energy, settling into its new home with a six-month season of classic and relatively new plays that show a level of ambition on which the company is determined to deliver.