The Beauty Queen of Leenane- by Martin McDonagh

Where and when: The Pam Golding Theatre at The Baxter, August 2 – 19, 2023
Director: Charmaine Weir-Smith
Cast: Jennifer Steyn, Julie-Anne McDowell, Bryan Hiles and Sven Ruygrok
Design: Greg King (set) and Denis Hutchinson (lighting).
Producer: How Now Brown Cow Productions
Booking: Webtickets  

The Beauty Queen of Leenane won five Naledi Theatre Awards, in Johannesburg, including Best Production of a Play and is on in Cape Town at the Baxter, until August 19, 2023- a short season- so get there. This 1996 play by Irish writer Martin McDonagh is not a comfortable piece of theatre to watch – with a mother (Jennifer Steyn) and daughter (Julie-Anne McDowell) tethered together in mutual loathing and disappointment.

Jennifer Steyn won the Naledi for Best Supporting Actress in a Play and is magnificent as the badgering Mag – who taunts and admonishes her daughter, Maureen (Julie-Anne McDowell (superb performance as her caregiver). This is a painfully co-dependent relationship – feeding into each other’s weaknesses. Steyn layers her performance with aching pathos – remarkable to see this great actress conjure up this complex aging woman and the power games that she plays. McDowell brings in moments of spunk and sassiness which provides some comic relief between mother and daughter. The entire cast is excellent.  I am not familiar with the accents in Leenane which is Galway, Ireland but they sound authentic to me.

This play drives home issues which are universal. Sadly, with the dominance of the nuclear family and the lack of extended family and community support, aging is not an easy story. For the most part, resources are limited to assist the elderly and their primary care givers. Often it falls to single daughters (without partners) to look after elderly parents, as is the situation in Beauty Queen.  Mag and Maureen are not ‘nice’ people. They have been hammered by their situation, locked in their misery. Mag spews out her frustration – graphically – into the kitchen sink. This drew gasps from the audience.

The play is set in Leenane but could be anywhere. Set in 1996, letters are the mode of communication. There is no e-mail or WhatsApping. We are in for the long haul- as the narrative spools out – between Mag and Maureen and two brothers (fantastic performances by Bryan Hiles and Sven Ruygrok).

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an impeccably crafted play and this South African production ticks all the boxes in terms of excellence– exceptional performances, staging and design. I loved the Irish music and the attention to detail in the set (Greg King)– such as the sign in the kitchen: “May you be in heaven, half an hour, before the devil knows you are dead”.  This pithy proverb (Google says it is proverb and others say that it is a St Patricks Day blessing) is part of the script but I won’t plot spoil.

There is no redemption in this play, with the knot of recriminations and resentments. It is a lot to sit through – but I realise that it would be difficult to cut as the build-up is essential to the narrative. It is wonderful to see this acclaimed Irish play and look through the lens at mother and daughter, in the grip of a situation from which there is no respite. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is engrossing theatre which enrages and ignites with a host of festering issues which are not engaged with enough and need to be faced.

Kitchen miseries: Sven Ruygrok in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, staged by How Now Brown Cow Productions, South Africa. Photo: Claude Barnardo
Hope is in the kitchen: Bryan Hiles in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, staged by How Now Brown Cow Productions, South Africa. Photo: Claude Barnardo.

Featured image: Jennifer Steyn and Julie-Anne McDowell in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photo: Claude Barnardo