The Beauty Queen Of Leenane
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
Reviewed – 31st October 2019
“From the banal domesticity of the outset, Mark Babych’s direction creates an atmosphere of eerie foreboding”
As the rain pours down on an isolated cottage in the hills of Connemara, the fate of 40-year-old Maureen who lives with her mother, Mag, unravels in a compelling story of bitterness, hope and disillusion. Their hardened relationship of resentful co-dependence is threatened when an old friend, Pato, turns up unexpectedly and offers Maureen a new life. Refusing to be abandoned by her one constancy, Mag has no qualms about trying to prevent her daughter from leaving, but with drastic repercussions.
Martin McDonagh’s first play and part of the ‘Leenane Trilogy’, ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’, was his theatrical breakthrough in 1996. Inspired by the life and language he was immersed in during childhood summers in his father’s hometown, it is a masterpiece of plot and role enmeshment. The tragicomedy flows naturally from the Irish idiom and spirit, describing the trials and tribulations of a bleak existence but with a sharp, funny edge. From the banal domesticity of the outset, Mark Babych’s direction creates an atmosphere of eerie foreboding, the stifling timelessness of confinement is contrasted with the breezy dream of escape. This is reinforced in Sara Perks’ creative, detailed set, with the thick, cut-down walls revealing the wide, open sky, and Jess Addinall’s dramatic lighting design.
As the conversations develop, the layers are peeled back to reveal the complex balance of close-knit families, each very different person irrevocably bonded by the past. Maggie McCarthy is an unnervingly sinister Mag, swaying from needy elderly mother to remorseless manipulator. The charming yet sensitive Pato is played by Nicholas Boulton, with a genuinely moving show of affection for Maureen but, as the hidden conflicts of her character gradually surface she becomes ever more challenging; in an impassioned performance by Siobhan O’Kelly, Maureen faces the reality of the life she leads. Laurence Pybus is excellent as Pato’s slow-witted yet coltish brother, Ray, whose restless chatter and behaviour appears both comic and disturbing.
This production, in collaboration with Hull Truck Theatre, re-establishes the roots of McDonagh’s talent for dark comedy and reflects his innate feeling for the film genre which he successfully moved into later. The immaculate set and lighting have a cinematic quality and the direction, particularly at the end, draws on this. It is only at the culminating point that we lose connection due to the distance from the stage and the moment is not as chilling as it could be. In addition, the music and sound by Adam McCready, which generally fit this style, occasionally come across – particularly between scenes – quite oversized for such an intimate atmosphere. With accomplished, subtly powerful acting ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ hooks the audience into the corrosive, emotional entanglement with suspense and engaging wit.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Ian Hodgson
The Beauty Queen Of Leenane
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 16th November
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Lipstick: A Fairytale of Iran
Reviewed – 28th February 2019
“doesn’t shy away from tough politics but tries to fit too much in”
Lipstick: A Fairytale of Iran is part-theatre, part-cabaret show which hopes to balance heavy foreign affairs and human rights criticism against some, often more light-hearted, sexual politics. It makes the case that you cannot divorce art from politics, that the mere act of telling a story is in itself a political act.
It’s 2010 and narrator Orla, played by Siobhan O’Kelly, is struggling to come to terms with her recent six week, Government sponsored, trip to Tehran. Orla and best-friend and drag artist Mark, played by Nathan Kiley aka Topsie Redfern, are about to open their own drag night in Soho but far from being excited for their dream to finally come true, they’ve had an argument and need reconciliation. The story unfolds exploring Orla’s time in Iran, how it changed her, and how Mark coped behind in London without his munchkin.
Lipstick is unflinchingly critical of the Iranian state, referring to it’s indecency laws and the brutal retribution in kind or literal ‘eye for an eye’ law exemplified in the case of Ameneh Bahrami and Majid Movahedi. This is, however, in contrast to the people she meets in Tehran. The students in her classes, the receptionist at the hotel and, most touchingly, a carpet shop owner, are all complex characters portrayed with warmth and fondness.
Writer and director Sarah Chew draws clever parallels between Orla’s Northern Irish upbringing and the contemporary situation in Iran. One of Orla’s students notes that the British Embassy in Tehran is on Bobby Sands street, the only street with a British name in the city. There’s also a satisfying circularity when, early in the piece, Orla describes the paramilitary explosive of choice, Semtex, as smelling like marzipan. Later, she is comforted by a kindly offer of traditional Iranian rosewater sweets – made from marzipan.
Whilst all this is happening, Mark stays in touch from London on the phone and through music he’s preloaded onto an MP3 player for Orla’s trip. Mark’s character and journey don’t feel as deeply explored or neatly structured. This disconnect was then magnified by the use of pre-recorded voice, with Mark lip syncing often to his own voice. Whilst the tinny, distant sound of the pre-record was likely meant to evoke the 5,000 miles between Tehran and London, it instead limited the connection with his character. Although responsible for many of the biggest laughs and impressive vocal performances, it was a shame his arc wasn’t as critically explored as Orla’s, leaving him to fulfil the “Gay Best Friend” trope.
The stage featured a long catwalk with the audience sat either side, as if in the Soho club. Mark’s many costumes were effective in motion, although the props and tech experienced a few glitches which, although handled well, did not go unnoticed.
Lipstick doesn’t shy away from tough politics but tries to fit too much in, leaving the plot feeling lopsided, limping along behind. However, despite this, its ending is feel-good and will leave you smiling on your way out of the theatre.
Reviewed by Amber Woodward
Photography by Flavia Fraser-Cannon
Lipstick: A Fairytale of Iran
Omnibus Theatre until 24th March
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: