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Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

A quarter century on, Martin McDonagh's first play has lost none of its power

Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Review: THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, Minerva Theatre, Chichester There's a celebrated episode of Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son in which Harold, at the end of his tether with his father, divides their Shepherd's Bush house in two, famously squabbling over a television set sliding between a gap in the wall. As a teenager, I laughed along with everyone else, but seeing it more recently, I found it desperately sad, deeply affecting and, ultimately, unwatchable. The tragedy of the two trapped men, locked in a dance to the death, overwhelmed the comedy.

There's a lot of that vibe in Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane, jointly revived by the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and Chichester Festival Theatre in its Minerva space, one perfect for such a production. This was McDonagh's breakthrough play, the first of many hits on both stage and screen and you can still discern the rough edges poking through the sheer verve of a young playwright finding his voice.

We're in the West of Ireland in 1995. Strangely (as the Celtic Tiger was already beginning to roar) times is tough and the people look east to England and west to the US for work and excitement. Maureen has plenty of the former and none of the latter, a 40 year-old virgin at the beck and call of her ageing mother, whose depth of entitlement is matched only by her fear of "going into a home". When Pato, a local man jobbing in England, accompanies Maureen to the cottage for a night of clumsy passion which awakens her long buried libido, the daughter soon matches her mother's cruelty with cruelty of her own.

It's an intense, funny, frightening play in which the rhythm of Irish speech is critical to the characters' development. It's through that deep connection with place that we see the parallels with Ireland's history, a people long living at the beck and call of the British, given the limited diet that led to The Famine, uncertain of where to go, but certain that they cannot stay, hemmed in by a pervasive psychologically controlling authority (for so long the Church).

The ensemble cast give full value to the drama, director, Rachel O'Riordan, skilfully sidestepping the trap of melodrama that is never far away. Ingrid Craigie is grotesque as Mag, the ruthless mother, who eyes a fateful letter addressed to her daughter as an alcoholic would look at the last bottle in the house - our hearts race with hers. Kwaku Fortune's role as Ray, Pato's brother, is underwritten, but he gets the insouciant arrogance of the oblivious teenager dead right.

The chemistry between Adam Best (Pato) and Orla Fitzgerald (Maureen) freights the play with its unique drama, lifting what might be a fine, but familiar, somewhat soapy tale of family strife into something much more. Fitzgerald may be a little too beautiful and a little too sexy to be standing on the edge of being an "Old Maid", but her pain and her aggression come from a deep place indeed, so deep that one fears a little for an actor required to summon such emotions night after night. Best, particularly in a showstopping post-interval monologue (actually a letter reading), is sensational as a decent man trying to do the right thing, whose respect for Maureen sets the denouement in motion. Nobody who has suffered from a love affair's false start (so that's all of us, right?) can be left unmoved at their fate.

At times, the writing can be a little glib, a little too neat and a dated understanding of mental illness goes largely unquestioned, but this is a thrilling production of a landmark play, blessed by a magnificent cast and unimproveable staging. And, in a week in which UK politics has been dominated by the issue of social care and the UK's post-Brexit relationship with Ireland, its subject matter is as relevant today as it's ever been.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester until 2 October

Photo Helen Maybanks

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From This Author - Gary Naylor

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