The Beauty Queen of Leenane: impressive performances in sensationalistic script

Maureen (Kirsten Slenning) and Mag (Tanja Dixon-Warren) duke it out in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Maureen (Kirsten Slenning) and Mag (Tanja Dixon-Warren) duke it out in The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

It’s a nasty play well performed.

In Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, it’s the early 90s and Maureen is caring for her mother Mag in the claustrophobic Irish village of the title. The two women hate each other. Forty-year-old Maureen is a virgin who has kissed only two men. For this, Mag declares Maureen a whore. Mag wheedles and demands. Every morning, she empties her bedpan into the kitchen sink—and she has a urinary infection. When Mag says, “I’d die before you’d put me in a home,” Maureen replies, “Aye. Hopefully.”

Enter Pato, a construction worker, who invites Maureen to a party. Then she invites him home.

The next morning, the play takes its first significant turn. Parading her sexuality in front of Mag, Maureen enters the kitchen in her bra and slip, perches on Pato’s lap, kisses him deeply, and tells him how she has developed a taste for his cock. In revenge, Mag tells Pato that Maureen went to an English “nuthouse”—and produces the papers to prove it. Mag also claims that Maureen has physically tortured her, which Maureen denies.

As a playwright, McDonagh revels in the vivacity of cruelty and he doesn’t offer much insight by way of exchange. For all of the beauty of McDonagh’s language, I think he is a sensationalistic entertainer.

That’s just my taste, of course. More objectively, The Beauty Queen of Leenaneis narratively predictable. Everybody talks about the poker that Maureen uses to prod the turf fire, for instance, and it’s not long before we figure out how else that poker will be used. And, when Pato essentially proposes to Maureen by letter and entrusts his brother Ray with delivering the note, it is equally obvious that no good can come of Pato’s plan. Nonetheless, we have to endure a long scene in which Mag tries to talk Ray into giving her the envelope.

Although The Beauty Queen of Leenane doesn’t offer much narrative or thematic satisfaction, it does offer opportunities for bravura acting performances and, on that level, Ensemble Theatre Company’s production delivers.

Kirsten Slenning, who’s playing Maureen, works a lot in film and TV, which makes sense of the subtlety of her performance: the little smile that can’t help but break through when Pato calls Maureen a beauty queen, the nauseating dislocation that registers as trembling when Maureen realizes, late in the play, that she’s gotten something terribly wrong.

Ashley O’Connell’s performance as Pato is also nuanced and O’Connell finds the full measure of Pato’s compassionate charm—when Maureen is humiliated by the revelation of her psychiatric admission, for instance, and Pato says gently, “What harm sure?…And ‘nuthouse’ is a silly word to be using. You know that, Maureen.”

As Mag, Tanja Dixon-Warren is admirably contained, and Francis Winter is solid as Ray.

As far as my Canadian ear can tell, everybody’s Galway accents are impressively consistent.

The moody lighting—most effective at its darkest—is by Patrick J. Smith. And the spot-on costumes—including some truly awful knit acrylics for Maureen—are by Julie White.

Speaking of those costumes, it was as hot as hell in the Jericho Arts Centre the night I saw The Beauty Queen of Leenane. But the actors—swathed in sweaters, parkas, heavy socks—kept going, undaunted. It’s a tribute to them—seriously—that they were able to maintain such strong focus.

If only they’d had a more thematically rewarding script to focus on.

THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE By Martin McDonagh.Directed by Kathleen Duborg. An Ensemble Theatre Company production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, July 27. Continues in rep until August 15. 

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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