The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Roslyn Packer Theatre (NSW)

Sydney Theatre Company presents a savagely funny black comedy that speaks of camaraderie, cruelty and otherness.

In the lead up to Christmas, it’s probably a good time to go and see a play that is chiefly about family dysfunction.

Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh, boasts high profile actresses – Yael Stone and Noni Hazlehurst – in lead roles. It’s directed by Paige Rattray, fresh from Fangirls, Belvoir Theatre’s knock-out hit. The budget is large, the set impressive, the costumes thoughtfully constructed, the humour the darkest shade of black. Yet the thing that lingers most about this production is its searing depiction of resentment and family violence. 

The Beauty Queen of Leenane tells the story of an impoverished Irish family, Mag Folan (Hazelhurst) and her adult daughter, Maureen (Stone). The Folans live in a small stone cottage in Galway on Ireland’s magnificent west coast. Even before the actors come onto stage, the set – a decrepit cottage set atop a mossy hill, strewn with plastic garbage bags – speaks of geographic isolation and economic malaise amidst a stunning natural environment. It brings to mind 90s films such as Trainspotting which shows the picturesque rolling hills of Scotland in the background as young characters bored out of their collective brains and impervious to nature’s beauty seek refuge in heroin.

Maureen is now 40 and, apart from a brief stint working as a cleaner in England, she has been caring for her domineering mother for 20 years. Mag makes endless demands of her daughter, who describes herself as a ‘blessed feckin’ skivvy’, and actively tries to limit her social life. The catalyst for change arrives in the unlikely form of Ray Dooley (Shiv Palekar), a foul-mouthed young man who desperately wants to leave Leenane, and who arrives bearing a party invitation from his older brother, Pato. Pato (Hamish Michael) has returned home for a brief visit after working as a construction worker in England. In the small town of Leenane where, as the genial Pato puts it, ‘you can’t kick a cow without someone holding a grudge for 20 years’, someone is always leaving. While part of the larger history of Irish diaspora, this remains the killing blow of rural economies: that to find a decent living you must leave.

Fortunately, Maureen and Pato hit it off, and for a time it seems as if their romance has legs. Pato comforts Maureen when her mother taunts her about her past admission to a mental health clinic, and is sensitive in the face of her deepening vulnerability. He promises to write to her from England, which he does. His monologue, veering between awkwardness and bravery as he attempts to draft his first letter to Maureen, is beautifully played. When his letter arrives, offering an opportunity for escape for this isolated woman, Mag is horrified. Intent on her own survival, she attempts to disrupt her daughter’s blossoming romance.

Hazlehurst is exceptional as Mag, capturing the slow movements and stiffness of an aging body, together with a savage instinct for brutality and a nature my grandfather would have described as ‘cunning as a shit-house rat’. Michael is also moving in his portrayal of the relative solidity of the older Dooley brother: optimistic, funny and compassionate. Sometimes it feels as if the emotional dynamic between the four characters – two who are highly charged with anger and frustration, and two who express themselves more passively – is a little too evenly balanced. And occasionally the characterisations veer rather too close to stereotype. Yet the physicality of the performances are impressive: Stone’s neck and shoulder muscles bunched with years of tension, and a poignant moment involving a lost totem tennis ball, where Palekar parades lonely on the hill with the metal pole across his shoulders like a crucifix.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane speaks of being outside power, of otherness, of the camaraderie and cruelty of the invisible. It speaks of missed opportunities and frustrated desire, almost as if time is the fifth character, mocking those who miss their chance. Technically, it’s a well-written play with some nifty pieces of foreshadowing that are satisfying to watch play out. Allusions to violence are first buried in the general profanity of the dialogue, gradually emerging like sharp-toothed icebergs. The humour is visceral, savagely funny, and harsh as battery acid. When Ray confronts Mag about the smell of urine in her kitchen sink (which is where she empties her chamber pot), Mag tries to tell him that cats have been breaking into her cottage and weeing in the sink. ‘You do get a very considerate breed of cat’, he replies.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
By Martin McDonagh
Director: Paige Rattray
Designer: Renée Mulder
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Assistant Director: Deborah Brown
Cast: Noni Hazlehurst, Hamish Michael, Shiv Palekar, Yael Stone
18 November-21 December 2019
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney NSW
Tickets $104-$134

Helen Hopcroft
About the Author
Helen Hopcroft is an artist, performer and writer. She holds a Masters degree from London’s Royal College of Art, and a Creative Writing PhD from the University of Newcastle. She has won competitions such as the Nescafe Big Break, and been a prize winner in prestigious awards such as the National Westminister 90s Prize for Art, with the latter featuring an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Her most recent exhibition was with Bertie Blackman at Despard Gallery, Tasmania, and she has a solo exhibition coming up at Maitland Regional Art Gallery in 2020. In 2017, Hopcroft spent one year dressed as Marie Antoinette, and went about her everyday life in Maitland, regional NSW, for a performance titled ‘My Year as a Fairy Tale’. She is currently writing a book about this experience. Learn more: