Martin McDonagh burst into the theatre with The Beauty Queen of Leenane back in 1996, in an acclaimed joint production by Druid and the Royal Court. This outstanding Young Vic revival by Joe Hill-Gibbins confirms the play as a classic of mother and daughter warfare in what Fintan O’Toole described as “the mental universe of people who live on the margins of a globalized culture.”
The audience enters the rural cottage in Connemara through dark corridors, a rain-sodden patch of scuffed grass and vast swathes of plastic sheeting. And Ultz has designed the dingy kitchen to perfection, with paint peeling on the red door, and a photograph of the Kennedy brothers conjuring the Irish diaspora that awaits Maureen Folan, the doomed beauty queen.
Everything about Maureen, as played by Susan Lynch in an outsized football shirt, declares her cultural dislocation. The church, the community, her disgusting old mother, Mag: they all have their claws in her. But equally, she feels nothing in return. She once worked as an office cleaner in Leeds. She suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts.
Will she ever escape? Not while the old woman’s alive. The first Mag was the late Anna Manahan, a great lump of an Irish actress, but very different from the new Mag of another great Irish actress, Rosaleen Linehan. Manahan was dank-haired, scheming and devious to be sure, but thoroughly evil, too. Linehan, with tight, curly hair and dressed in a ludicrous tartan skirt, is more comical and casually malicious: a brilliant performance.
Originally, too, Marie Mullen was a very picture of worn-down submission as Maureen, whereas Lynch is more plausibly alive to the possibility of escape, sensually responsive to the fumbling masculinity of David Ganly’s bovine, good-natured Pato Dooley. Pato’s lost letter, delivered in a striking soliloquy, is the most disastrously misdirected missive since the Veronese postal system fouled up in Romeo and Juliet.
What remains so disarming about McDonagh is the way in which he both documents the tragic Anglo-Irish dilemma of displacement – and the homeland is no consolation whatsoever -- and hovers above and behind the Irish tradition of Synge, O’Casey and even Eugene O’Neill.
Not just mothers and daughters are framed, but brothers, too (Terence Keeley’s Ray Dooley is a hilarious young sidekick of Pato). And his bitter sense of humour is reflected in a writing style as distinctive and individual as any of the writers – Pinter, Mamet, Orton – with whom he bears such honourable comparison.