The Beauty Queen of Leenane ****

Many considered The Beauty Queen of Leenane a modern classic when it premiered nearly 15 years ago.  With its twisted humour and original voice, the play gave a refreshing jolt to both London and Broadway and sent even bigger shockwaves with the fact that it was written by a novice in his mid-twenties.

The best thing about the Lyceum’s production is that it proves that playwright Martin McDonagh’s inaugural work was not an over-hyped flash in the pan; Beauty Queen is a truly great play with interesting characters that take a roller coaster ride through some tough terrain.

Set in an Irish house that seems caught in a time warp, the majority of the play centres on the battle of wits and sanity between middle-aged daughter Maureen, who yearns for escape after decades of service to her mother Mag, who will stop at nothing to keep her daughter under her strict thumb.

Director Tony Cownie manages to orchestrate a production that is almost relentless.  He does not sidestep either the humour or the dark tones and ensures that all four characters not only have their place in the sun but also come across as three-dimensional.  He is assisted by an excellent design concept and a rain effect that resulted in audible gasps from the audience.

And the cast of four are stellar.  Dylan Kennedy as delivery boy Ray and John Kazek’s Pato come across as believable characters, and both make great impressions.  But the crux of this is on the two women, and here Cownie is paid in spades.  Nora Connolly’s Mag is a frightening force, an old woman whose frail body and voice disguise a monster, and Cara Kelly’s Maureen is a completely believable and sympathetic lead, a character you hope the best for even if you know she’s on the path to hell.

If there is a noticeable flaw, it can be found in the pacing of several key scenes, mostly in the second act.  Here, McDonagh has his characters play out some harrowing scenes, both physically and psychologically.  While nothing is wrong with any of these moments, several of them felt a bit reserved, almost too guarded, resulting in scenes that simmer rather than boil.

But this is almost trivial because, for the most part, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a soaring production filled with dark plot twists and wicked humour.  It’s hard not to get caught up in the mother/daughter struggle, and it ends on a point that makes one mentally revisit everything they’d just seen

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Lyceum in Edinburgh until March 13.

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