The Beauty Queen of Linane
by Martin McDonagh
November 10th - 17th, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
In-house review by Keith Hill
Keith Hill got into the Tower in 1993. The locks have been changed at least once since then, but he is still here, often at the bar but also acting and directing.
Martin McDonagh has had four plays produced by major companies in six years, has others waiting, and is just 31. There have been some suggestions that his later output is less deep, or even patronising and stereotypically stage Irish. Beauty Queen is his earliest play.
He is from Walworth. He has been to Ireland on holiday. However, he knows the cadence of the language, and the tragedies involved in the Anglo-Irish diaspora. He knows the poor wages, insecure housing and employment, the endemic depression and substance abuse, and the bizarre mixture of homesickness cynicism and self distrust which contribute to that same Irish stereotype. It is very striking that one would have no idea, from watching this play, that he was not a 50 year old Galwegian with a full theatrical career behind him.
There is no room in this play for codding about. The relationships are extremely difficult, sometimes to the point of abuse, The country is damp, grey, hostile and dull. The local way of life is being eroded by poor agriculture, emigration, and Australian television. There are many laughs, but they are those of guilty recognition, centring on repetitive vocal patterns, and the demands of an elderly relative become dependent. One senses that every word spoken has been written out of a profound instinct for the characters and where they are.
This sets very special problems for the company. The accents must convince, naturalism is vital, but an English audience's ear must be attuned and attracted to every nuance of what passes on stage.
The plot could be very simple. Repressed spinster, nursing troublesome mother, meets amiable builder, has eyes opened, and decides to consign ghastly mother to a home and run away as her sisters did. Devious mother rumbles plan, intercepts love letters, and stymies doubtful idyll. Mayhem ensues.
In fact, we have to remain in doubt almost the whole time as to which of mother or daughter is the abusive partner in the relationship. Just when we think we know, we are made to rethink. Maybe both are. We would never, of course, pour hot oil over our own mother's hand, but if we were manic depressive, and she had taken us out of hospital and reminded us of it at minute intervals for twenty years ...
The setting of the play (design by Patricia Douglas) was exactly right. The damp stains on the wallswere enough to speak of years of neglect of the house, but were not overdone so as to be incredible. They are not starving poor. There are a new fridge and a colour TV, if no inside lavatory.
One might cavil that some of the kitchen items were a tad pristine for a house occupied by a paranoid depressive and a woman who empties her chamberpot down the kitchen sink, but the overall design succeeded in conveying a great deal more than it appeared to, which is the essence of effective setting. Even the angle by which people were seen to approach the main door from the outsidesuggested a building huddled into a hillside, the door away from the prevailing difficult, evil weather.
Andy Peregrine's lighting design was the sort of hard work that one does not notice. The grey quality of rain-soaked light was well suggested obliquely though the windows. At the same time the main acting area was neatly and economically lit. That sounds like faint praise, but it is not. Nothing distracted the eye, and the whole subliminally enhanced our impression of the setting and what might happen there.
Simon Humphries' sound design was also in keeping with the deft sublety of the production as a whole. It consisted mainly of ambient noise, such as a television on in the background. We have to hear just enough to discern the Australian accents, but not hear what is being said on screen. That very delicate balance was confidently struck. The operators, Jonathan Norris and Elvira Whitehead worked efficiently and accurately to ensure that they were never noticed.
Des Spellman's input as dialect coach was clearly effective. The accents were consistent, and the inflection of rural Irish speech was especially well commanded, without any loss of comprehensibility. It is a credit to the hard work of coach and cast\tab that the authenticity was lightly worn and unobtrusive. The cast therefore had the luxury of taking time 'where it was needed to establish character and allow the thought beneath (often very deep beneath) the word to be seen.
The discovery of Sheila Burbidge's Mag Dolan ensconced in the rocking chair from which she rules the household like a demanding baby, was highly effective. It takes some courage for an actor to appear so hugely unappealing, and there was very fine control in balancing the rather queasy comic effect of a manipulative old woman with the sensation of lurking menace.
The physical characterisation was impeccable. Mag was solid enough to suggest the toughness which had enabled her to survive her life, but had all the difficult arthritic movement which simultaneously allows her to claim hand and foot service from her daughter, and leaves her vulnerable to the routine mental and physical tortures which are imposed in revenge. One of the problems of the play is that this battered granny keeps winding her daughter up, although she clearly knows full well what she is doing. Here we were made to understand a degree of involuntary collusion in the abuse. These two just cannot leave each other alone.
When Jill Fear first appeared as the apparently hagridden daughter Maureen we wanted to find out how she coped with this cuddly ogress. We were kept guessing constantly. The careless superficial sniping between the two was refreshingly free of melodrama. Actress and director trusted in the ability of the play to intrigue and surprise and put aside the temptation to show us too much of Maureen's trouble at the beginning.
Thanks to that control, we were still able to be frightened by her quick, guiltless and cold preparations for departure after Mag's death, at the very end of the play. Too high a note too early, and we would have been bored by then. When she was interrupted by the news that the man to whom she is running has married another, and she is trapped, we fully understood the ghastly vista of her future, seriously ill and alone, yawning in front of her. The performance was by turns engaging and sickening, but ever faithful to the mental illness which is at its core.
Peter Miller, emerging from the Youth Theatre to play Ray Dooley, may have had more trouble than others with the accent. If he did, he did not let it embarrass or distract him. He produced a wonderfully rounded characterisation. He had every teenager's self centered world view and he fancied himself light years ahead of the local biddies and loons, with his ragamuffin fleece hat and half digested bits of knowledge.
But you couldn't help liking him, especially the circular conversations with Mag (while both are glued to the telly, taking nothing in) and the wrestle with his conscience over whether it is safe to give the love letter destined for the daughter to the mother, Up to the last moment I wanted him to choose right but genuinely couldn't guess if he would. I only knew that I wanted to smack his head - hard - if he didn't. Very engrossing acting.
Michael Greener as Ray's elder brother Pato has the thankless task of innocent catalyst to the tragedy. This was a highly principled and careful performance with never a cheap trick. From the artless boozy sincerity with which he courted Maureen, through the awkwardness of emerging from her bedroom to deal with her mother next morning, trying loyally not to cringe at the coarseness with which Maureen throws him in Mag's face, he let us laugh, but never tried to make us do so. The long letter in which he apologised for his impotence was understatedly heartbreaking.
The cast, coordinated by Kay Perversi, provided a wardrobe that convinced throughout, and Michael Allaway's first outing as stage manager was as efficient and sympathetic as everything else he does for the company. The time and effort that Ann Watchorn spent tracing authentic dry goods in Ireland paid off to the last detail.
Allan Hart's direction was very fine; thoughtful and faithful to a text which could easily be overdone or cartoonised, and I left the theatre vicariously very proud at what had been achieved.