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Above left: Eamon Farren & Judi Farr.

Above right: Mandy McElhinney & Judi Farr.

Below: Mandy McElhinney & Darren Gilshenan.

Photographer: Tracey Schramm.

POSTED: 03 MARCH 2010

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, by Martin McDonagh

Sydney Theatre Company Ed | Wharf 2, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 13 March

Beauty is something that is commonly associated with rural Ireland — television and film portrayals of quirky and lovable locals surrounded by rolling green hills, joyful jigs and rousing singalongs, pints of Guinness in quaint old pubs.

If you’ve actually visited Ireland, you know that this is partly true. But just like anywhere else, despair, frustration and disaffection can arise — and in Leenane, County Galway, the inhabitants are well and truly disa-feckin-fected.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the first in Martin McDonagh’s Connemara Trilogy. Last year B Sharp presented the third, The Lonesome West, and I truly hope that somewhere there is a plan for the middle play, A Skull in Connemara, to be performed in the near future.

Judging by the reaction of the young people in the audience the other night, Sydney Theatre Company’s Education Program has hit the mark in taking McDonagh’s words and bringing these bitter, malicious and wretched characters to life.

The cramped, cluttered living-room-cum-kitchen of Mag (Judi Farr) and her middle-aged, single daughter Maureen (Mandy McElhinney) squats in the dark space of Wharf 2, illuminated by the flickering television playing a succession of Aussie soaps and old movies.

The relationship between Mag and Maureen is strained at best. Mag’s other children have abandoned them for their own lives, and Maureen, unattached and with a history of mental illness, is left to care for her ageing mother.

Mag hunches in her chair, muttering and casting evil looks. Maureen stamps around, muttering and casting evil looks. Petty points are scored in the denial of a cup of tea or Complan*, incessant demands, and past hurts reopened. The barbs are vicious, frequently vulgar, and shockingly hilarious.

Maureen has an opportunity for a rare night out, delivered through Ray Dooley (Eamon Farren). Ray’s uncle Pato (Darren Gilshenan) is arriving from England, and a party is planned. Despite Mag’s best efforts to prevent Maureen from going, a little black dress is purchased and Maureen gets her outing.

Many drinks later, Pato and Maureen are together back at her place, and it seems that there might be a real chance for Maureen to find happiness with this gentle, discomfited man.

Mag, of course, has other thoughts … and you just know this won’t end well.

Cristabel Sved has directed an excellent cast through this grubby territory with a generally astute and sensitive hand, with the exception of some overly gratuitous posturing as Maureen flaunts her ‘sexuality’ to Mag, and some timing issues ... although the pace of the final moments between Ray and Maureen is just brilliant.

Mandy McElhinney’s Maureen is a sensitive study of despair and acrimony, and her riotous interactions with Mag constantly tip her character’s balance from sympathetic to cruel.

Judi Farr’s portrayal of Mag is similarly multi-layered, eliciting pity, disgust and horror — often all at the same time.

Farren is great as Ray, complete with facial injuries from who-knows-what and a chip on his shoulder the size of the blarney stone. Gilshenan’s Pato completes this mismatched quartet with a softer yet no less powerful presence.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is one of those experiences that make you just that little bit more grateful for your own life. It’s touching, delightfully appalling and very, very funny.

* I googled this product out of curiosity. I wish I hadn’t.

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