David Hennessy spoke to the director and cast of The Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith’s forthcoming The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Orla Fizgerald and Ingrid Craigie star in the first major London revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane in over a decade.
Rachel O’Riordan directs the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith’s revival of the dark comedy that centres around Maureen Folan – a plain, lonely woman, tied to her manipulative and ageing mother, Mag and the toxic, co-dependent relationship the two women share.
Now forty years of age and single, Maureen begins to hope there could be another life for her when she is invited out by Pato, a construction worker home from London.
But Mag has other ideas than Maureen’s happiness and interferes cruelly in her daughter’s dreams.
Maureen is played by Orla Fitzgerald who is recognisable from The Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Young Offenders and Taken Down.
Orla says of her character: “She is somebody who is unfulfilled in her life and resents her current situation, resents her mother deeply.
“Her relationship with her mother isn’t good at all and she is, for various reasons, left looking after her.
“She’s just somebody that has not fulfilled her potential in life and at quite a young age is left with no prospects and then an unexpected invitation comes along and that opens up a world of possibilities for her, she feels anyway.
“The fact that she gets this invitation to a party is a huge event in her life, in her world.
“Even though she’s in this current situation, she feels hopeful that she can get out of it.
“She’s complicated because she’s damaged.
“I think the damage with Maureen was done very early. I don’t think there’s much love maternal love from her mother.
“And I feel when you don’t have that, that can leave you incapable in life to be able to form relationships.”
Mag is played by Ingrid Craigie who Rachel describes as ‘Irish theatre royalty’.
Ingrid’s work with the Abbey Theatre includes the premiere of Aristocrats by Brian Friel with Stephen Rea, the premiere of A Life with Cyril Cusack which went on to the Old Vic and The Plough and the Stars with Brendan Gleeson.
Maureen and Mag have been shut in with only each other for company for so long that they now only seem to take delight in sniping at each other and pushing each other all the time.
Ingrid says: “They take a pleasure, a delight in getting at the other one. It is how they entertain themselves often.
“But within any relationships, there are boundaries.
“And the danger is if you go over those boundaries.
“And I think in families the things that you think are normal, because it’s your family, are not necessarily normal at all.”
The play comes straight from Chichester Festival where it has been lauded with glowing reviews.
The cast is completed by Northern Irish actor Adam Best, formerly of Holby City, as Pato and Wicklow actor Kwaku Fortune, whose screen work includes Normal People and Line of Duty, playing his brother Ray.
While the story may be outlandish and” exaggerated, the actors believe people recognise the characters and emotions.
Adam says: “You would not believe the number of comments that you hear like, ‘That reminds me of your mother’.
“You hear comments like that all the time.”
Kwaku says: “It’s horrible but it’s also kind of recognizable.
“I’m from a big family in Wicklow. We all get on very well but there’s certain feuds that arise and just keep going and going and you don’t even know where it started.
“It is relatable. I’ve definitely seen that kind of behaviour even in my own family: Bite, bite, bite. Poke, poke, poke to get a rise.”
Adam adds: “This is what I think McDonagh does beautifully. He takes situations that aren’t that unusual and just turns the dial up on them.
“I think that’s what we have tried to do is make the characters not grotesque. They’re believable, truthful, honest women.
“The plays open with people recognizing a situation and able to sort of able emphasize and sympathize with those characters, in spite of their actions.
“They’re doing pretty extreme things by the end of the play but in survival mode. I think people can really sympathize with that.”
The irony of the Maureen- Mag relationship, which is so volatile it sometimes spills into physical violence, is that Maureen seems destined to turn into Mag despite her disdain for her.
Rachel says: “She’s going to become her mother because she hasn’t actually ever found out who she is.
“She went to England, had a terrible time, experienced discrimination. She never valued by herself or by her mother or by her community or by her country.”
The Beauty Queen of Leenane was the play that established Martin McDonagh as a playwright back in 1996.
Ingrid says: “Re-reading the play it was so hard to believe that it was written by a 25-year- old young man because it’s incredible understanding from a young man, I think, about what can happen in in that situation.
“How did a young person know about an old person’s fear of being put in a nursing home or being left on their own?”
Orla continues: “It’s a universal story. It’s set in Leenane but I think if you were to bring this to Spain, it would still translate.
“It’s the elderly, who cares for them? Unfulfilled ambitions. Unrequited love. Young people with no direction.
“I think there’s a lot in there that people can identify with.”
The Beauty Queen of Leenane would earn an Olivier Award nomination for its playwright.
He followed this with award-winning plays such as The Cripple of Inismaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
He would go on to become as successful with films such as the cult classic In Bruges and the Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
There has not been a big London production of this play since The Young Vic did it with Susan Lynch and Rosaleen Linehan in the main roles in 2010.
Director Rachel announced her plans to revive the play soon after she became Artistic Director of the Lyric back in 2019 and the play was originally planned for last year.
After being born in Cork, Rachel grew up between Leeds and Northern Ireland and believes the play has a lot to say about Irish- English relations with McDonagh himself being born in London to parents from Connemara and Sligo.
“I think it’s about colonisation. I think it’s about the long term consequences of that.
“The Ireland of 1995 is not the Ireland of now. It’s pre- The Good Friday Agreement, it’s pre- equal marriage vote. It’s a very different Ireland.
“The national identity is still very confused, and I think we’re still coming out of that.
“He doesn’t hammer it home. Nobody wants to come to the theatre and receive a lecture on Irish and British history, but it’s all in there.
“I think that was a point McDonagh was making with the play: If you don’t deal with the issues of the past, they don’t go away.
“I think that’s more relevant than ever after recent years in relation to Ireland and Brexit and everything.”
The play also ponders the experiences of the Irish in London during the period with Pato returning to the home he misses but he just can’t return to due to economic reasons, and Maureen herself referring to a rough time she had in Leeds due to the anti- Irish sentiment she encountered there.
Adam says: “Pato is a beautiful man and I know people like him.
“I live in London and I know a guy from the west of Ireland. In the 1990s, he would have been about the same age as Pato.
“I spoke to him about his situation and his story, it’s not the same as Pato’s but when I spoke about scenes and the play, he recognized characters from his life and his work.
“We’re talking about a time that is not too far beyond No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.
“I think there was a lot of mistrust.
“They weren’t part of a society and I guess that left them very vulnerable.
“It’s sad to think about it really: These were men in the world with emotions and needs who were often ignored.
“I’m looking forward to coming to London with these characters and an audience that will understand.”
Kwaku adds: “Ideally, I think Pato would love to just settle in Leenane, his hometown, have a business and have settled with someone like Maureen and built a family.
“But there’s just no opportunity for that so he has to go to London in the late 80s/ 1990s where you’re just considered a ‘Paddy’, a ‘Mick’ and a ‘terrorist’.
“I mean my dad used to sell to the army base in Germany and he would even get held up at gunpoint, ‘Are you in the IRA?’ And all this kind of stuff.
“And he was just selling bits in the army bases.
“It was in the world consciousness that if you’re Irish, you could potentially be a weapon.
“Some of the guys working over there at the time just wouldn’t speak when they went into an English person’s house to work because if they spoke and they realized they were Irish, they would think they were putting a bomb in their cupboard.
“So when they’re over in in London, they’re just treated like the lowest of the low and then back home, there’s nothing.
“They’re caught in this place so it’s kind of tragic.”
England itself is spoken about with some suspicion in the play.
Rachel says: “It’s a complicated relationship that the characters have with England. And of course it is. I think many Irish people have a complicated relationship with England. Why wouldn’t we?
“McDonagh would have a fantastic perspective because he’s London- Irish and since I have moved to London and lived in this area, I’m more and more aware that being London- Irish is a thing of itself.
“I think it’s fascinating: You’re neither one thing or the other and you’re also both.
“Pato is neither one thing nor the other. He works on the sites in London. He goes backwards and forwards to Leenane but he never really belongs to either place.
“I think that’s in the play. That sense of, ‘Who am I? Which one am I? Am I either? Am I neither?’”
Although Maureen is excited by Pato’s invitation and accepts it, there will be no happy ending for the couple.
Adam says: “At the conclusion, there’s a sliding doors moment and people not saying things that they could say and missing opportunities.
“People don’t. They’re afraid of rejection or making a fool of themselves.
“People have their ambitions beat out of them.
“I think that’s where we find Pato. Had he been a younger man with a bit more confidence, he might have been able to find a way to make that connection with Maureen on that night and change the play.
“People don’t and that’s what happens if you’re the 40 year old man living in a bedsit on a sh*t wage, you don’t have any self-worth.”
While it is more obvious in the cases of Maureen and Mag, all the characters in the play are trapped to some extent, including Pato’s brother Ray who serves as a messenger.
Kwaku says: “They’re stuck in this cycle. The island has them. There’s no way they’re leaving.
“Ray’s also tragic in a way because he’s kind of at the start of that kind of extended adolescence.
“He says he wants to go to London but I just don’t see it.
“You don’t even know if he would be ready for the building sites or anything like that.
“He’s kind of fallen between the cracks.
“He’s definitely stuck there. There’s no prospects really.
“He really is a bit hopeless.”
This will be a first Martin McDonagh production for Orla, Adam and Kwaku but Ingrid appeared in the big West End and Broadway revival of The Cripple of Inismaan starring Daniel Radcliffe back in 2013.
She says: “That was one of those plays that was just so much fun to be in as well.
“I had never been in a play with someone who had that huge fan base.
“I had worked with really well known people but I suppose Daniel had that different fanbase because of Harry Potter. There would be huge crowds of people outside every night.
“And then when we were in New York and it was the same.
“I remember the first day we came in, he was just so prepared. He’s such a hard working guy.
“He’s got a half Irish background anyway but he had already worked on his accent. He was terrific. He’s just a normal actor guy. He’s a normal guy who is just really hardworking and committed. He was lovely to work with.”
Ingrid says: “It’s been over ten years since Beauty Queen of Leenane was seen in London. It’s certainly time to see it again.
“I saw the first production with Druid. It was like a thrilling shock.
“We just haven’t seen people onstage speaking like that.
“Also, the language that is sort of like a mad version of Synge.
“I always felt doing Cripple was like The Playboy of the Western World in a parallel universe.
“That’s what it felt like. You couldn’t believe his bravery, ‘I’m going straight down there. Wherever that leads me, I’m going’.”
Rachel says in closing: “I really hope the Irish community come and support this play.
“We have a big Irish community in Hammersmith and west London- From where I live in Acton right up to Cricklewood, Kilburn- and let’s celebrate that together.
“This is your theatre.
“I really hope they come out and that they like what we’ve done with it.
“I think they will because the actors are just brilliant and I think they’re guaranteed a good night out.
“I think they will laugh and they will cry.”
The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays at Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith 9 October- 6 November.
For more information, click here.