IN A WORLD where theatre-making has been violently pared by budget, here is a hefty chunk of utter magic that cocks a snook at all of those restrictions. Don’t have more than one scene, they say. This one’s got many. Cut your cast down to monologue-status, they insist. This one has a vibrant and robust cast of four. Slice your set into something that offers a vague suggestion of the world, they demand. This one’s got everything, from the kitchen sink to the analogue phone and the sampler on the wall, featuring God and the Devil. This is The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a magnificent and biting foray into the broken complexities of the relationship between an Irish woman and her mother. It’s on at Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 29 October, and should not be missed. Not for the world.
Cast in a rude little house in a beautiful but out of the way village called Leenane in Ireland, this is a tale which evokes Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie with its pathos and cruelty, its returning themes of bruised dreams thrust against the larger canvas of spite and malice. It is here, in this beautifully crafted and extraordinarily well performed work, that you get to meet Maggie (Jennifer Steyn) and her daughter Maureen (Julie-Anne McDowell).
Wrapped in grisly crocheted shawls of non-descript colour, an overwhelming sense of bitter misery and the alluded to smell of urine, Maggie is deliciously vile. She pulls no punches in saying what she means. She’s like Dorothy Tutin in Alan Bleasedale’s Jake’s Progress. You cannot help but fall in love with her sharp edges and pathetic vanities, with her pocket mirror which sometimes serves as her rear-view to her daughter’s emotions and sometimes aids her in plucking chin hairs.
And Maureen is the quintessential third daughter, who is left mopping up, after her siblings’ dreams came and went and took them away. Hers is a plight of drudgery, cooked oats and Complan without lumps. She can laugh, even if it is bitter mirth, uttered through the gall of self-deprecation and disappointment in the flow of the universe, for her. She can also dance and be beautiful and dream, like the best of us.
This impeccably produced work is satisfying in the horror it presents, not very far from that of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1962 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford classic. Its structure is beautifully balanced with the use of rude tools, destructive language and a poker. It pushes violence to the edge of possibility in the live theatre context and then, no more. Because no more is necessary. Resonant of the haunting quality in Reza de Wet’s work Diepe Grond, which was performed in English as African Gothic in 2017, this play will rest deep with you, and with your capacity to hear the sound of relationships that bear ugly scars forever.
The men in the tale are of less narrative significance than the women, but support it with a full-blooded presence. Pato (Bryan Hiles) and his brother Ray (Sven Ruygrok) smoulder with the social muscularity in the context of wannabe emigrants. Ireland is the place of their birth, but not that of their dreams or anticipated futures. Leenane certainly isn’t. Both of them want to stretch their young wings in a world far off: America; but can they?
Maureen’s cage door opens a crack; there she can see blue skies and picket fences beyond the ken of her tetchy mother, the need to cook porridge and the plaintiveness of a ghoulish songster from the 1930s on the wireless. But is it her future for the taking?
With lilts in the language that make you think of Peaky Blinders but also of stories by Catherine Cookson, this is a theatrical experience to remember and cherish. It’s not a tale of soft-edged cliches and the message it presents is complex and deeply human. This work is the definition of universally fine drama. Do not miss it. Not on any account.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is written by Martin McDonagh. Performed by Bryan Hiles, Julie-Anne McDowell, Sven Ruygrok and Jennifer Steyn, it is directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith and produced by Daniel Galloway for How Now Brown Cow Productions, and features creative input by Greg King (set) and Denis Hutchinson (lighting). It is at Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 29 October.