The Beauty Queen Of Leenane

Production Photo: Ciaran Bagnall

There is literal beauty in Prime Cut and the Lyric Theatre's complex and humane co-production of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, directed by Emma Jordan. It is a retro and revelatory piece where the raw and hard-hitting aspects of early Martin McDonagh are approached from a structural and personal mindset worthy of the more sensitive and contemplative aspects in his marvellous The Banshees Of Inisherin.

Time has provided we and the play makers with the benefit of wisdom, but when our eyes first rest upon Ciaran Bagnall's set, we begin to find that time is no healer in this context. A set which is absolutely staggering - a leafless, aging tree hanging as a threat to an open, unhatched roof, walls as mouldy as the food in the kitchen might be, and a small, barely hopeful ray of light through a tiny window are just a few of many details which tell a story by themselves.

The primary focus is on Maureen (Nicky Harley), the fortysomething daughter and caretaker of Mag (Ger Ryan). Both show signs of fieriness and functionality, except the former seems to have died out for the sake of the latter in both cases. Maureen, at base level, appears as an avatar for thwarted idealism, not unlike Jimmy Stewart's more-complex-than-he-appears George Bailey, who never hid his desire to do something "big" and "important" even with his father telling him that, in a small way, their family were doing something important.

Except Maureen doesn't have parental backing or communal goodwill to fall back on. Instead, both parent and community appear to be falling back on her as a source of support or inspiration. That "community", or what we see of it, is young Ray Dooley (Marty Breen), whose invitation to a party offers a doorway for the still virginal Maureen to walk through and meet Ray's older brother, Pato (Caolan Byrne), while presenting a way for a Mag to intervene. It is, not unlike Banshees, a case of trying to protect what one has versus striving for more, or maybe both, as only Martin McDonagh can write it. And, like McDonagh's best work, it is funny, it is unsettling, and it is strangely exquisite.

Under Jordan's direction and in the hands of this great cast, the foundations of the four characters blossom into something exceptionally thoughtful and close-to-the-bone. From Ray's inquisitive innocence emerges frustrating but recognisable behaviour and a pleasure in "little things", like Aussie soaps and Ireland's World Cup success in the 1990s. These supposedly small details, like Mag's love of Jacob's Kimberley biscuits, feed into the theme of polarising perceptions of personality that permeates throughout - what, or who, might be seen as frivolous or even troubling to some may be foundational or especially fortifying to others. How else can a seemingly long-winded love letter from Pato to Maureen become so divisive amidst a family?

This letter is just one of several demanding developments revolving around Maureen, where Nicky Harley, in a performance of a lifetime, is always truthful and at times wrenching in showing a life stalled by weary repetition and lost spontaneity. Repetition which has pained her, but not everyone, to the point where no one reads as entirely happy – and in this sense, The Beauty Queen Of Leenane acts a warning to preserve and build upon the beauty in not merely the title but also everything, everywhere. We see, amidst a series of laughs, a legitimate fear of eternal loneliness for the Mags and Maureens of this world unless the time is taken for a believable process of change and care, and we learn about how lives, when stripped to necessities deemed essential, reveal empty and discomforting sights, sounds and personalities - a lesson that while necessity may be invention's mother, desires are its offspring, in a tale both of life and the meaning of life.

Simon Fallaha

The Beauty Queen Of Leenane runs at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday July 1. For more information, click here.