Something wicked this way comes
It might be hard to believe, but it’s twenty years since Martin McDonagh’s modern classic, ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ first premiered in Galway. Over the years it has gone on to tour internationally and win countless awards, including four Tony Awards in 1998. Celebrating ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’s’ 20th Anniversary, Druid’s delightful production of McDonagh’s dark comedy, currently playing at The Gaiety Theatre, ensures the emphasis is on the comic rather than the dark. Some may argue it sacrifices its starker side a little and plays itself for laughs, but director Garry Hynes has made a strong choice and it's one that pays off handsomely. Allowing the comedy to do most of the heavy lifting and the torture and abuse to state itself simply, Hynes delivers a thoroughly enjoyable ‘Beauty Queen,’ featuring an absolutely stunning performance by Aisling O’Sullivan in the principal role.
At its heart, McDonagh’s dark tale offers a twisted take on the classic Cinderella story. Here, the secretly beautiful and vengeful Maureen, poverty trapped in a world of porridge, Complan and Kimberly biscuits, is reduced to slaving after her brutally mean minded and urine infected mother, Mag. Maureen has given up all hope of happiness until, that is, the unexpected arrival of an invitation to a party. Dressed to impress and catching the eye of her Prince Charming, in the form of England bound Pato Dooley, the vindictive, worn down Maureen blossoms into a breath-taking beauty queen with a smile to match, even if only for a night. Yet Maureen wants to run away with her Prince, as does he with her. But wicked mother is having none of it and Cinderella’s hope for freedom could well be dashed if the royal summons falls into the wrong hands. At which point it’s to hell with fairy tales. In a world where no deed, good or bad, goes unpunished, where secrets old and new are rising to the surface, there’s going to be hell to pay and hell to be endured if Maureen’s glimpse of heaven is taken away from her.
Despite frequent references to once popular, Australian TV programmes, and even Bosco on occasion, ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ has aged remarkably well, often feeling quite contemporary in places. Francis O’Connor’s excellent set design conveys the cold, damp, dankness of a decaying country kitchen so well you can almost smell it. James F. Ingalls' evocative lighting design gives depth and texture to McDonagh’s rural and psychological landscapes. As does Paddy Cunneen’s excellent musical composition which, with the cast emphasising the comedic aspects, particularly earlier on, brings out the dark and dread in 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane,' balancing proceedings a little. All of which is ably supported by Greg Clarke’s sound design.
A poignant aspect to this anniversary production is that it both honours the memory and laments the loss of original cast members Anna Manahan and Tom Murphy. Yet in one of those strange twists life and theatre often throw up, Druid’s current ensemble includes original cast member Marie Mullen from twenty years ago. Originally cast as Maureen, Mullen is compelling as the mean spirited Mag, delivering a top drawer performance as an old woman determined to have her needs met, no matter what the cost to herself or anyone else. Aaron Monaghan as the tired of being tested Ray Dooley, emissary of the prince, is an absolute delight. As is Marty Rea as the quietly confident, secretly unsure of himself, Pato Dooley, with his sensitive delivery of Pato’s monologue being a highlight of the night.
Bringing it all together is the gravitational force that is the beauty queen herself, Maureen Folan, wonderfully realised by Aisling O'Sullivan. Indeed, if you could bottle and sell whatever that intangible something is that O’Sullivan brings to her performance, you could probably retire in luxury within a week. Whether teasing, torturing, tormenting or being tormented, or simply being a 40-year-old schoolgirl experiencing her first flush of love, O Sullivan is utterly riveting. As she eases seamlessly from her worn exhaustion to youthful delight, her comedy double act with Marie Mullen to the darker places they need to go, O’Sullivan is pure gold.
Director Garry Hynes has delivered a rare treat, a classic production of a classic play a second time around. Wickedly funny, ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ is a wickedly good night of theatre with a stellar cast delivering first class performances. Catch it while you can. You’d be mad to miss it.
‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ by Martin McDonagh, produced by Druid Theatre Company and directed by Garry Hynes, runs at the Gaiety Theatre until October 29th
For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre or Druid Theatre Company