The Beauty Queen of Leenane review (fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne)

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There’s something delightfully ‘90s about the way Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play The Beauty Queen of Leenane unfolds. The blend of black comedy, horror and heightened drama/melodrama emerging from domestic situations which McDonagh trades on is constantly familiar and feels pretty retro. But it’s the precision with which McDonagh pulls the elements together, the (somewhat predictable) twists and turns, and his undeniable wit that makes The Beauty Queen of Leenane a thrilling and enduring piece of theatre.
As the first play in McDonagh’s The Leenane Trilogy, it brings to life the people of Ireland and the community of the small, but beautiful village in Western Ireland, surrounded by sweeping green hills. It’s also where McDonagh spent his holidays as a child. Mother and daughter, Mag (Noni Hazlehurst) and Maureen Folan (Michala Banas), are living, or rather, surviving, in McDonagh’s Leenane. Maureen, a 40-year-old virgin who’s had to overcome her fair share of hardships is stuck looking after her sick 70-year-old mother. Their relationship is strained, to say the least, with Mag manipulating her daughter and doing all she can to prevent Maureen’s happiness and keep her to herself. We know that there’s beauty outside the front door of the Folan’s claustrophobic cottage, but it’s a beauty that’s trapped the people of Leenane.
Director Declan Eames’ production (as part of the Kin Collective’s full season of The Leenane Trilogy) treads the line between overblown melodrama and moments of intimate pathos perfectly. Eames is an accomplished television director, and this is his first full-length play. He clearly understands the theatrical form, and is able to draw the full shape of each scene so that it simmers with tension and bursts to life.
As the feuding mother and daughter, Hazlehurst and Banas bring years of bitterness and frustration to the fore. Hazlehurst is at her manipulative best as Mag, unafraid to draw out and amplify the character’s ugliest sides. Banas delivers the emotional truth amongst the heightened drama. Her Maureen is entirely sympathetic, even if her accent occasionally slips in her most tumultuous moments.
They’re ably supported by Linc Hasler, who embodies Maureen’s shining beacon of hope as Pato, and Dylan Watson, who articulates all we need to know about the tiny community these characters live in as Ray.
The production values match the performances, with Casey-Scott Corless’s costumes and rundown kitchen set evoking Ireland in the early ‘90s. The set is so authentic, full of dated fixtures and details, there are moments when you can almost smell the decay and… whatever Mag has thrown down the sink. Nick McCorriston’s sound design is unobtrusive but cinematic and immersive, and Kris Chainey’s understated lighting does all it needs to.
McDonagh’s comedy emerges organically from the details in the script and the minute interactions between the characters onstage, and this is a cast that wins every laugh in the text, simply by playing the text. But what they do best is drawing deeper resonances from the text. While the psychological elements of the play lack any kind of nuance, the dramatic elements that surround them are loaded with subtext. This is a play about damaged people, and both Hazlehurst and Banas are so endearing that somehow, despite the horrors they enact upon each other, you want them to succeed.
[box]The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at fortyfivedownstairs as part of The Leenane Trilogy until 15 June. Tickets are available at
Featured image by Lachlan Woods[/box]

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