Noni Hazlehurst and Yael Stone in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Pic: Brett Boardman

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The Beauty Queen of Leenane review (Sydney Theatre Company)

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Before Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and all that Oscars attention, before In Bruges, his film directorial debut, before plays like Hangmen, A Behanding in Spokane and The Pillowman, which made him the toast of theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, before his romantic collaboration with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, one of the hottest properties in entertainment, Martin McDonagh gave us the windy, wily The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

The biography is instructive because Beauty Queen, McDonagh’s first major success, is much like everything else he’s done and yet something he hasn’t often done since. This starry remount by the Sydney Theatre Company, pitch-perfect in almost every way in a masterclass by Noni Hazlehurst and Yael Stone, highlights everything I’ve admired in McDonagh, and everything to which I’ve developed an aversion.

There’s the clumsy treatment of race (Spokane, Three Billboards) and the invisibility of women (most of his plays). And, particularly, the Quentin Tarantino-like love of violent revenge porn, a dehumanising streak that debases too many of his tales. It’s not my jam.

Beauty Queen is still jet-black in its humour and sensibility. And the stomach-turning sadistic violence is still there in a couple of scenes. But it focuses on two fully realised female forms. And, perhaps as a result, has a tenderness that most of McDonagh’s work lacks.

Hazlehurst and Stone are doing such fine work, viciously kicking funny bones and yanking heartstrings with every carefully calibrated line.

Maureen (Stone), imprisoned by her defective mind and demented mother (Hazlehurst) on a lonely Irish hill, finds a crack in the door in Pato (Hamish Michael), a man who might love her in spite of herself. Our hearts open to the possibilities, which makes it all the more painful when they’re inevitably dashed.

Mum and daughter can’t live with or without each other, two hurt people who only know how to hurt each other. The constant teasing and taunting, a proper heavyweight contest, warms their squalid cottage, where neighbours down the hill fear to ascend.

It’s like catching a bug in a bottle — wildly thrashing to try and escape but you know the air will eventually run out. It’s carnal, very funny and heartbreakingly tragic. Hazlehurst and Stone are doing such fine work, viciously kicking funny bones and yanking heartstrings with every carefully calibrated line.

Yael Stone. Pic: Brett Boardman.

For Hazlehurst, that’s less of a surprise. Your correspondent saw the TV favourite in the same role in a much smaller theatre in Melbourne a few years back, sitting up close as she dug deep for sympathy in a hateful woman. Stone makes a welcome return to the stage and inhabits Maureen completely. They’re award-attracting performances.

Director Paige Rattray had the whole play simmering excitingly on opening night. Hamish Michael is lovably dopey as fumbling Pato. As his younger brother Ray, who comically gets caught between love and war, Shiv Palekar is an accomplished scene-stealer.

It’s like catching a bug in a bottle — wildly thrashing to try and escape but you know the air will eventually run out.

In the wide-open spaces of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, designer Renée Mulder intensifies the feeling of isolation by building a lonely house on a lonely hill. Lighting designs by Paul Jackson and sound designs by Steve Francis (with perfectly chosen Irish ditties) smartly conspire.

When the set revolves, though, and we peer into this peculiarly Irish prison, the sense of suffocation so important to the work is lacking. It’s plays like this where STC really misses its more intimate spaces on the wharf, which is under redevelopment for another year. While some plays this season have filled out the space (Lord Of The Flies is the best example), this and others (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Mary Stuart) have felt a little lost.

Admiringly, thrillingly in parts, the sparks from this cast could ignite McDonagh’s best play in any theatre.

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre until December 21.

One response to “The Beauty Queen of Leenane review (Sydney Theatre Company)

  1. Sadly, the second act demonstrates that this is an early play by an author who had the skills but not the insight. In effect there is no drama in the second act in the Aristotelian sense, only a long reveal with emotional consequences. In effect act two is no better than the ‘it was only a dream’ resolution beloved of soap operas.
    Imagine how much more powerful the second act could have been if (a) Pato reads out his letter to Maureen as Mag reads it herself, and (b) if Maureen knows that her story of catching Pato at the railway station is a fantasy, that she is embellishing and extending as a way of simultaneously torturing Mag, and avoiding the self-realisation that she is psychologically unable to escape from Mag, and her little corner of Ireland?
    And then imagine how easy would be for that set up to turn on an inadvertent reveal from Ray that in fact Maureen didn’t catch Pato, and that Pato is now engaged – and what Mag would make of that information?
    The actors do a terrific job of covering up the script holes, but this is in effect juvenilia.

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