George Hull

Culture notes: The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Martin McDonagh's spine-chilling skill

Culture notes: The Beauty Queen of Leenane
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Take one chip pan full of cooking oil, one crippled old lady and one strong-framed Irishwoman in her prime. Let the younger one heat the oil till it’s scalding, and pour it on to the older one’s trapped hand so she screams and screams (make the older one her mother, for good measure...). When she has the information she needs, have the torturer casually toss the remaining oil in her victim’s face and walk away. Now get every soul in the auditorium rooting for the daughter.

Not possible?

Go to see The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Young Vic, until 3 September) — and think again.

In Martin McDonagh’s tightly woven little masterpiece, the hilarious and the spine-chilling are uncomfortably well blended. As the evening progresses, every innocent domestic event, every off-the-cuff joke turns out to foreshadow something horrendous.

Rosaleen Linehan pulls off an awe-inspiring performance as Mag (the mother, above), greeted by the audience with coos and sympathetic smiles one moment, hisses of pure hatred the next. She exploits the gems in McDonagh’s script to the full. Now pontificating, now whining defensively, she makes all too comprehensible how her daughter Maureen — played by Derbhle Crotty as a downtrodden romantic on the edge of madness — could be driven to brutality.

The image of dreamy-eyed Maureen brandishing a poker, in front of an ambiguous silhouette on the rocking chair, will stay with me.