Step into Mag’s parlour where a badly tuned radio crackles in the background, a pot of porridge congeals on the range and there’s a strong smell of urine in the Belfast sink. It’s a sad and depressing space recreated in the theatre in the round at the Mission Theatre in Bath in Next Stage’s production of Martin McDonagh’s 1996 black comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
It’s a universal story of a mother and daughter relationship that’s gone wrong. Both despise the other to the point of hatred although both in a way need each other. With her bad back and bad hand seventy-year-old Mag relies on her daughter Maureen to fetch and carry as the frail grand dame sits in her rocking chair. Angered by her mother’s self-pitying behaviour Maureen’s role as carer is exacerbated by the effect it has on her compromised love life.
Jane Lawson as Mag was so affective as cantankerous old Mag that it was hard to have any sympathy for her as she belittled her daughter with emotional blackmail. With a quivering lip, a wagging finger and an ability to flip from pleading to condemning in an instance Lawson as the protagonist dominated her parlour until the brutal and climactic ending.
Maureen played with a cold cynicism by Liz Wilson gave a strong performance as the put-upon daughter seemingly enjoying her role as both carer and sadistic guardian in the claustrophobic psychodrama. Whether it was forcing Complan down her mother’s throat or refusing her a favourite biscuit these small tortures heightened the broken relationship.
Enter into the parlour two versions of the forgotten men of far flung Leenane in Ireland. There’s Maureen’s love interest construction worker Pato (Richard Matthews) who leaves the town to better himself and there’s his brother Ray (Harry Mason) who stays in Leenane content with Australian soap operas on TV and the odd game of swing ball.
Pato’s monologue as he writes to Maureen in England encapsulates the broken dreams and high aspirations of the Irish diaspora while Ray’s disjointed conversations symbolise the left behind frustrations of the under employed. Two exceptional and pivotal performances in a production where the cast maintained believable West of Ireland accents throughout aided by accent coach Patrick McGuire – always a tough ask for any actor.
Directed by Claire Rumball, the intensity of the domestic drama could have been lost in the broad space but the attention to detail of the set from its pictures of the Kennedys, damp washing hanging up, ironing board and biscuit tin on the kitchen table coupled with atmospheric lighting (Simon Lawson) kept the audience’s focus on the minutia of the relationship.
The themes in The Beauty Queen of Leenane seem so familiar as almost all families have a form of broken relationship in them. It’s one explored in the 1981 movie Mommy Dearest, and the father-son version in the television sitcom Steptoe and Son, and even in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – the 1962 film featuring the bitter relationship of two sisters. In this excellent production of Martin McDonagh’s play those themes are played out to their violent conclusion with a fine cast who didn’t overplay the Irishness of the setting but concentrated on the bleakness of the comedy.
The play runs nightly at 7.30pm with a Saturday matinee at the Mission Theatre, Bath, until Saturday, September 10th, 2022. Tickets and information at www.missiontheatre.co.uk