Theatre: The Beauty Queen of Leenane; Royal Court, London

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The Independent Culture
Useful Torture Tip No 46. A cup of Complan, thoughtfully left unstirred, makes, in its nauseating lumpiness, the ideal drink with which to regale a tyrannical invalid parent. Force them to quaff it all by dropping hints that there are far worse alternatives. For a good deal of Martin McDonagh's blackly comic The Beauty Queen of Leenane, you feel that such treatment is no more than is richly deserved by Anna Manahan's Mag Folan, a ton of scheming possessiveness in a rocking chair, who has kept her plain, middle-aged daughter Maureen (Marie Mullen) in slavery, in spinsterhood and (to top it all) in a Connemara backwater for most of her adult life.

The manipulative meddling of the one and the caustic exasperation of the other are expertly conveyed and Garry Hynes's fine production transmits an almost tangible sense of the dated, rain-sodden stagnancy of this world where the only form of getting on is getting on one another's nerves. Not that England, where folk have to go to find work, provides the answer. As Pato, a labourer who has come back over from London for a family farewell party, tells Maureen, with his characteristically eloquent clumsiness: "When it's there I am, it's here I wish I was, of course. Who wouldn't? But when it's here I am... it isn't there I want to be, of course not. But I know it isn't here I want to be either."

Pato's embarrassed decency is beautifully caught in Brian F O'Byrne's performance. He holds out Maureen's last chance of escape and McDonagh shows how his offer is intercepted by the mother, pushing the daughter into a calmly brutal madness and delusion when she finds out. There's a significant imbalance, however, in the play's treatment of this relationship. We get to hear about Maureen's semi-extenuating mental history and of the breakdown she suffered when she once tried to live in England. But it's as though the mother has had no past at all, let alone one that could enable us to put her monstrous present into some perspective.

Tom Murphy is delightfully comic as Ray, Pato's 20-year-old brother and errand boy. Bored out of his skull in Connemara, he is reduced to cartoon- like desperation by the still greater tedium of old Mag's tactically irritating company. A well sustained running gag about the awfulness of Kimberley biscuits (a brand Maureen only buys to spite her mother) reaches the finishing tape with style in the final scene when this likeably daft youth confesses they are his absolute favourite.

McDonagh has a sharp ear for the unconscious absurdity of what people say. Falling over himself to reassure Maureen that there's no shame in mental illness, Pato comes up with "a lot of well-educated people have breakdowns too. In fact if you're well-educated it's even more likely. Poor Spike Milligan, isn't he forever having breakdowns? He hardly stops." Tragic that Maureen can't marry such a wordily well-meaning man.

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