Martin McDonagh has always been an inherently controversial phenomenon. For some people, he's like a brilliant, balefully comic cross between J M Synge and Quentin Tarantino with his mordant, postmodern critiques of (pre-Tiger economy) contemporary Ireland. For others, he's an opportunistic cultural tourist whose fertile and undoubted talent for cod-Irish pastiche fails to compensate for a certain worrying heartlessness and lack of genuine emotional investment in the stage-worlds he concocts.
This reviewer inclines more to the latter camp. But watching Joe Hill-Gibbins's richly enjoyable production of McDonagh's debut drama, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, I am happy to concede that this first piece, in which he laid out his stall of tricks, is much more than an artful exercise in meta-theatrical cleverness.
The setting – a dank cottage in the mountains of Connemara – is familiar from many an Irish play about defeated hopes and missed opportunities. The story, too, initially looks as if it hails from the stock cupboard. A 40-year-old spinster and virgin, Maureen (Susan Lynch) is endlessly nagged and bullied by her cantankerous hypochondriac mother. Mag (Rosaleen Linehan), a monster of manipulative possessiveness who dominates the proceedings from a centrally placed rocking chair on a set by Ultz that almost makes you smell the rain-sodden stagnancy of this benighted backwater.
McDonagh succeeds, though, in fashioning a piece that is both a blackly hilarious deconstruction of the conventions of the drama of mutual recrimination and deathly symbiosis and an involving emotional work-out for the audience as the Hitchcockian tension escalates. He allows you to enjoy a game of spot-the-influence while also rooting the action in the freshly observed specifics of an isolated inward-looking culture. The only escape route for 20-year-old, Ray Dooley (a winningly agitated Terence Keeley), comes from vegetating in front of trashy Australian soaps on the television and from ill-informed dreams about moving to the Manchester drug scene.
Susan Lynch is, in one respect, odd casting as Maureen. There's a sexual glow about her and a natural aura of feisty defiance that makes it hard to picture her a worn-down, an on-the-shelf loner who is cheated by her mother of the last hope of happiness when it arrives in the shape of David Ganly's endearingly gauche and affectingly decent navvy on leave from his London exile. But this excellent actress drops subtle hints of the mental disturbance that will drive the character to more savage reprisals against the mother than merely serving her lumpy Complan.
Rosaleen Linehan is magnificent as the meddling matriarch. An intercepted letter is a plot device that might well have seemed hoary in 1896 let alone a century later. But the scene in which Ms Linehan, greedily eyeing Pato's crucial missive to Maureen, persuades Ray to leave it undelivered, is a comic highlight because of the way she reduces him to head-banging torpor and frustration by her tactical demands for attention and long-winded lugubriousness. Eliciting gasps and delighted groans from the punters, this episode treads an expert line between melodrama and farce; not least of McDonagh's dubious assets is the ability to play an audience like a fiddle.
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