Arts Reviews

The Beauty Queen of Leenane @ NNT

The student-led theatre production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, written by Martin McDonagh, was phenomenal. The performance presented the disturbing and psychologically baffling relationship between the manipulative 70-year-old Mag (Emma Pallett) and her mentally unstable daughter Maureen (Esther Townsend).

The set (designed by Tom Proffitt) remains consistent throughout the whole performance, depicting an old-fashioned country house in rural Ireland. The lack of variation in set design was very effective, as it served to emphasise a sense of suffocating enclosure, which reinforced the monotony of the characters’ lives. The tedium of Mag and Maureen’s existence is further conveyed through very repetitive dialogue and routine actions. It becomes evident to the audience that it is partially the lack of variety and social contact that contributes to the toxicity of the environment and the rapid degradation of Maureen’s mental health.

Food and drink become symbolic props throughout the performance. Food items, such as the Complan soup, serve both as a symbol of love and terror for Mag. Maureen, who is responsible for her mother’s care, fluctuates between using food as a peace-offering gift (offering her mother a charitable biscuit) and an item to distress and aggravate her (forcing Mag to eat additional portions of the Complan, which she hates).

“Emma Pallett pulled off a stunning performance and never lost character”

As the performance progresses, the relationship between the two main characters deteriorates, and the audience is left desperately trying to figure out which one of the two is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. Accusations of abuse and lunacy are thrown from either side, and Mag is presented as an interfering and manipulative old tyrant, set on isolating her poor repressed daughter from the outside world. When Maureen is delivered invitations to parties and social gatherings, Mag burns her letters to keep her from knowing. Emma Pallett pulled off a stunning performance and never lost character. Her stoop and characteristic eye-shift made Mag comical and amiable, with the audience thoroughly enjoying her cheeky antics. Understandably, however, when Maureen discovered her mother’s treachery, she was very upset. However, it is not quite until the penultimate scene that the audience realises the price Mag will have to pay for her duplicity…

“We are forced to watch the most tormenting and disturbing display of revenge”

The scene in which Mag is caught out is harrowing to say the least. Throughout the performance, the audience is encouraged to harness feelings of pity for Maureen as they see how she attends to her mother tirelessly, while Mag confines her to the house and jeopardises her every chance at finding love and liberty. After Maureen loses her temper however (having discovered the truth Mag desperately tried to deny) the audiences’ perception is turned on its head as we are forced to watch the most tormenting and disturbing display of revenge. Mag’s screams fill the room and the audience is left thoroughly distraught. Throughout the whole episode, the most tormenting aspect was when, despite Maureen’s brutal violence, Mag sobs: ‘but who will look after me if you leave?’ This moment is heart-wrenching, as the audience realise Mag’s desperate dependence on her tormentor. Maureen abandons her mother for a party, leaving Mag crippled and twitching on the floor in unbearable agony.

“Esther Townsend’s performance of the clinically insane Maureen was stunning”

The scene following this depicts Mag bent over in her rocking chair, head in her hands. Meanwhile, Maureen relates to the audience a fantastical monologue, all the while wielding a brutal looking fire-poker in her hands. With hysterical enthusiasm, the character conveys her excitement at the prospect of killing-off her mother so that she may join her new lover Pato (Eric Crouch) and escape the oppression of Leenane. Esther Townsend’s performance of the clinically insane Maureen was stunning. Townsend gave the audience consistent clues throughout the performance to signal her mental condition, such as the subtle scratching of her arm, like an anxious twitch, and her rapid and fluctuating mood-swings. Just before Maureen’s psychotic dialogue is complete, however, Mag tumbles unexpectedly onto the floor, revealing a bloodied face, her eye-socked hollow… A small bloody object, which we can only assume is her eye, has rolled free and come to rest about half a foot from the poor old woman’s face. Suddenly the audience realises that Maureen’s speech was not in fact a glimpse into the future, but instead, a horrific reflection on the past.

“Left the viewers stunned and appalled”

This scene was immensely powerful, and left the viewers stunned and appalled. I thought this would have provided a particularly strong ending to the play. However, this scene was then followed on by an additional episode reflecting on Maureen’s life after her mother’s death. Although the scene has purpose, I think that this does not really provide any new information for the viewer: Maureen’s insanity was evident in the murder of her mother.

Despite this however, the performance was thrilling, and I would definitely recommend it! The performers maintained convincing Irish accents throughout, and in particular, Emma Pallett (Mag) and Esther Townsend (Maureen) were excellent. The two performers, who dominated the stage, managed to keep the audience sitting on the edge of their seats despite a lack of variation in any other aspect of the performance (i.e. character or setting).


Isla Weir

Featured Image courtesy of Nottingham New Theatre Official Facebook Page.

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