Theatre Review: Nottingham New Theatre's The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Having not visited the Nottingham New Theatre since 2017, I was eager to return to review The Beauty Queen of Leenane, my excitement amplified since my friend was acting in the show. I was not disappointed, finding myself hooked from the very moment I took my seat to the final scene which reminded me of the many reasons why I enjoy visiting the student-run theatre.

The general plot consists of a 40-year old virgin spinster, called Maureen, living in a small Irish town called Leenane who acts as caretaker for her elderly mother Mag. Their relationship is toxic and Maureen is angry that she has not been able to escape the small town because of the duties to her mother. She is invited to a dance by Pato who she vaguely knew when they were younger. We later learn that the character of Maureen used to be a patient at a mental hospital in England and has been abusive to her mother in the past.

When my friends and I took our seat in the theatre, Mag was sitting hunched in her rocking chair, played by the brilliant Emma Pallett. The characterisation of Mag was executed very well, especially as the 80-year old woman was played by a 20-year old student. Pallett portrayed Maureen very well, maintaining the hunch and thick Irish accent perfectly. Her strong, abrasive, and blunt way of speaking combined with the eye rolls to produce a witty atmosphere which brightened an otherwise dark comedy.

Set designer Tom Proffitt deserves recognition for his work since the set was truly reminiscent of a traditional Irish kitchen. There was only one set throughout which consisted of the worktops, sink, stove, rocking chair, TV, and dining table. The colour scheme included many wooden tones, brown, and beige. Although this appears boring and uninspiring, it fitted tremendously well into the tropes of the play. For example, it reflected the mundane reality of Maureen’s daily life (as well as Mag’s life) and was emblematic of the confines they are restricted to, highlighting the inescapable nature of being stuck in one household and one town.

Director Cameron Brett chose to utilise two exits and a window to add more depth to the main set. One exit was a door the symbolised the front door of the house, where visitors would enter. The kitchen door, we were encouraged to imagine, led to the rest of the house whilst the window proved useful in setting the visual scene since we could hear a gravel sound every time characters walked by the window, adding realism to the sense of place.

Both the lighting and the music blended together to create a full spectacle that would leave the audience intrigued at different moments. Due to the lack of set changes, the lighting designer Yasmine Dankwah would dim the lights right down to show a scene change or time lapse. In addition, music would play as the lights dimmed which provided a nice break following dialogue-heavy scenes.

The clever use of props is also worth noting, such as the repetitive use of tea. Mauren, played wonderfully by Esther Townsend, would make herself and her mother many cups of tea throughout the play and I noticed that it was real. Other performances I have seen used fake tea however, NNT ensured a real kettle was used which meant the audience could see the steam, making the feature feel more authentic. The intriguing (and nerve-wracking) use of matches to burn the letters that Maureen received from her suitor was memorable too.

There were two highly stand-out moments of the production. The first was the point in which the character of Mag screamed repeatedly when her daughter pours oil over her hand and scorches it on the stove. This was shockingly disturbing to watch as the actors played their sinister and innocent parts so well. It was extremely dramatic, only heightened when Maureen tips the boiling oil so that t hits her mother’s legs as well. This silenced the audience and was a moment where the comedic elements stopped, and we felt the raw pain and abuse that Mag suffers.

The second stand-out moment for me was when the character of Maureen comes back from her suitor’s goodbye event and plans to go with him. She has the one issue of who will look after her mother when she goes to America with him. The spotlight is on Maureen during her monologue and at the end of it a light turns on the rocking chair and Emma Pallett as Mag falls to the floor, drenched in blood and eye gouged out. Maureen stands with fire poker in hand and the scene ends. It was gruesome and left the audience in disbelief, to say the least.

One criticism is that the play could have been left at this dramatic and climatic moment. It instead ended in a lacklustre way after Maureen realises, she made the whole thing up about going with Pato to America and picks up her suitcase to take back to the bedroom. On reflection, I realise this is a poignant way to end as it shows that the excitement and freedom, she wished for will not happen and that she will adopt her mother’s mannerisms and almost live like her mother did. It is ironic that we feel somewhat sorry for this character who we now know to be a murderer.

Overall, all of the actors portrayed their characters extremely professionally, particularly the two female leads. The Irish accent is known to be a difficult one to pull off, yet they all managed to do so in a realistic manner. There was very little to fault with the production and I recommend it to anyone remotely interested about mental instability, family dynamics, and the complicated life of a small-town person.

 

Shanai Momi