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So many of Martin McDonagh’s hallmarks are present and correct in his first play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, first performed in Galway in 1996 and now revived by director Rachel O’Riordan in this co-production by the Lyric Hammersmith and Chichester Festival Theatre. There’s the stultifying rural milieu (Leenane, Connemara, is the sort of place where you “can’t kick a cow [...] without some bastard holding a grudge for 20 years,” as one character puts it), the warped family ties and sudden lurches of brutal violence. And, of course, the jokes that dig further and further until they hit upon something hideous.
You can almost smell the festering resentment - and the rising damp, among other even less appealing fragrances - in the front room that serves as a backdrop to mother Mag (Ingrid Craigie) and daughter Maureen (Orla Fitzgerald)’s skirmishes. The latter has spent 20 years as her parent’s “blessed fecking skivvy,” and their interactions are a well-rehearsed dance of passive-aggression (including some very spiteful biscuit-eating - the play is the worst possible advert for Kimberleys, an Irish treat).
Maureen, who Fitzgerald imbues with a bareless suppressed rage, daydreams aloud about meeting a man at her mother’s funeral; Mag shuffles around in her slip-ons with a muted malevolence that explodes onto the surface when she manoeuvres to thwart a fledgling romance between her daughter and Pato (Adam Best). It seems she wants - needs - Maureen to be as lonely and isolated as she is. Craigie makes the character by turns almost regal and haughty, a domestic despot sitting on her rocking chair throne, then feeble and shrinking.
Pato is briefly back in Leenane between jobs in England and looks set to offer Maureen a future outside this familial psychodrama; the opening to the second act, in which he reads a letter directed to her, full of vulnerability and hope, provides a brief but welcome shift in tone. So do visits from his younger brother Ray (Kwaku Fortune), who bounces into the kitchen with swagger each time, then ends up mired in circuitous, almost Beckett-like interactions with Mag.
Some of the mechanics of McDonagh’s plot are clearly signposted, others are genuinely shocking, including a climactic act of violence which forces us to reconsider the twisted mother-daughter dynamic. The last scenes, with their raised pokers and bubbling vats of oil, briefly threaten to stray into melodrama, but the stark sadness of the final moments rein things in effectively, anchored by Fitzgerald’s controlled performance.
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, until November 6. www.lyric.co.uk