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Review Round-up: McDonagh's First Still a Beauty?

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The first major London revival of Martin McDonagh’s modern classic The Beauty Queen of Leenane opened at the Young Vic on Wednesday (21 July 2010, previews from 15 July) with a cast led by Susan Lynch and Rosaleen Linehan.

McDonagh's first play, and winner of a 1996 Writers' Guild Award, the play tells the darkly comic tale of Maureen Folan (Lynch), a plain and lonely woman in her forties and Mag (Linehan), her manipulative, ageing mother who interferes in Maureen's first and possibly final chance of love.

Although no stranger to courting controversy with his blackly comic and often bloody plays, McDonagh's last notable theatrical outing, A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, drew furious attacks from New York critics who accused him of using racist language.

Were the London critics more impressed than their colleagues across the pond with this revival?    

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – "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.' ... Maureen, as played by Susan Lynch in an outsized football shirt, declares her cultural dislocation... She once worked as an office cleaner in Leeds. She suffered a nervous breakdown of sorts. ... Manahan was dank-haired, scheming and devious to be sure, but thoroughly evil, too... a brilliant performance ... 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."
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – "How good is Martin McDonagh? In some quarters, he is an artful purveyor of pastiche... I was struck by his double-edged skill: he offers all the familiar delights of farce and melodrama, while at the same time offering a powerful critique of contemporary Ireland ... Without spoiling the plot, one can reveal that Maureen scents a chance of escape when she meets a local bachelor... and the big question is whether Mag will manage to thwart her daughter's one hope of happiness... McDonagh offers a suave assault, through the bitter mother-daughter relationship, on the Irish faith in the sanctity of family. He also paints a vivid picture of the aching solitude of Connemara life... Rosaleen Linehan is magnificent as Mag, indecently gloating over her urine infection as if a badge of honour, and casting endless, furtive glances at a crucial letter intended for her daughter... David Ganly as her putative rescuer, and Terence Keeley as his restless younger brother, also give pitch-perfect performances in a play that actively engages the audience."
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (five stars) – "This cracking revival of his 1996 breakthrough work reminds us once again what a gift McDonagh has for black comedy and what a J M Synge-like ear for language as spoken with a rich Irish accent... Maureen (Susan Lynch), a lonely 40-year-old virgin, fights viciously in a decrepit house with her malevolent mother, Mag (Rosaleen Linehan)... Dialogue this scabrously funny virtually speaks itself but the central duo offer up sparkling turns. Lynch, with a default setting of bedraggled and dishevelled, gives Maureen a wrenching ache of loneliness, as well as a fierce spark of independent spirit. The magnificent Linehan... makes Mag a malignant Buddha sprouting in her strategically-placed rocking chair. So vividly does director Joe Hill-Gibbins realise this scenario that the enrapt first-night audience emitted a panto."
  • Charles Spencer in the Telegraph (four stars) – "There is an edge of ruthlessness about the writer Martin McDonagh that is both thrilling and profoundly unsettling... McDonagh’s vision of rural Ireland is…thoroughly contemporary... The two main characters... inhabit a hell of their own creation. Mag Folan, the 70 year old mother... constantly bullying and bossing her daughter Maureen, a frustrated virgin of 40 who takes ingeniously spiteful acts of revenge. Their dialogue is full of inventive invective and lingering grudges... The dramatic tension McDonagh creates is brilliantly sustained, while the sudden twists and turns of the plot elicit genuine gasps of surprise from the audience... Susan Lynch is far too attractive to play the plain, lonely spinster... Nevertheless, this fine actress powerfully captures the character’s resentful desperation and precarious mental health. Rosaleen Linehan delivers a terrific tour de force as the monstrous Mag... And there is outstanding support from David Ganly as the decent, tongue-tied suitor and Terence Keeley as his cheeky kid brother... This is a worryingly exploitative piece that turns the audience into giggling voyeurs of profound unhappiness."
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (four stars) – "This, Martin McDonagh's first play, announced him in 1996 as a theatrical equivalent to The Pogues... remaking traditional material into a new creation that blended a strong lineage with contemporary vibrancy and a horse-doctor’s dose of irreverence... The story of selfish, manipulative 70-year-old Mag Folan and Maureen, the 40-year-old daughter she has in effect chained to their rural Galway cottage for 20 years... It is as if John Millington Synge had written Psycho. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins gets maximum mileage out of the sense of claustrophobia of the single cottage-kitchen location... The central performances come from a pair of masterly Irish actresses... Rosaleen Linehan... and Susan Lynch ... McDonagh’s writing and Hill-Gibbins’ staging alike know the value both of charm and shock... As well as being delicious in its own right, it makes one impatient for a British premiere of McDonagh’s latest (and first American-set) play, A Behanding In Spokane.
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