Living a long way from anywhere, having your moods informed mostly by monotony, being constantly lonely and generally having no real prospects for either meaningful relationships or rewarding work – it’s enough to drive anyone mad. And in the case of mother and daughter Mag (Jennifer Steyn) and Maureen (Julie-Anne McDowell) Folan, it might have, if the opening scenes of Martin McDonagh’s darkly funny and briskly bitter play is anything to go by.
Mag is an openly manipulative old lady, apparently feeble enough to merit the attention she demands from her harried daughter Maureen, but clearly also strong-minded enough to shape scenarios around her preferred outcomes, which generally favour nobody except herself. Maureen is a middle-aged spinster, resigned to caring for her mother because nobody else will and equal parts cowed by the older woman’s emotional hostility and willing to respond with her own acid indignation.
It’s clearly not a situation set up for laughs, but nastiness and wit are not opposites and there is cutting acuity in many of the women’s responses to each other that evokes the sort of laughter that can only be enjoyed when at a safe distance from the material being laughed at.
For more conventional – and gentle – comic relief, there are the visits of Ray (Sven Ruygrok), a magnificently mulleted young man whose main function in the context of the story is to deliver messages, both negative and positive (though he doesn’t seem particularly attuned to the difference). Ray’s brother Pato (Bryan Hiles) seems the more sensible sibling, offering a rare possibility for Maureen to connect with someone other than her mother on a more than superficial level.
McDonagh’s script balances its no-punches-pulled examination of toxic relationships and familial dysfunction with a couple of moments where there is almost pantomime-esque sense of villainy being unleashed. The latter don’t feel terribly out of place, though, as the character development and excellent performances from the whole cast mean you are considerably invested in everyone’s arc, and their actions fit their personalities (though there is, notably, room for a sharp twist or two).
Steyn fully transforms herself as Mag, a sneering, scheming presence whose emotional brokenness is reflected in her posture and range of forbidding expressions. McDowell, whose natural Irish accent is matched by her colleague’s rehearsed inflections, makes Maureen disconcertingly difficult to read, blurring the line between victim and antagonist. Ruygrok steals most of his scenes, hilariously committing to Ray’s blinkered indignation when the character feels he has been wrong. Hiles adds much-needed moderation to the mix, with Pato’s relative balance perhaps possible because he is the only character who has been able to leave Leenane before.
Greg King’s meticulously designed set – the interior of the living area of the Folans’ house – is a constant extra protagonist, underlining the poverty that keeps the women frustrated and yearning for something beyond what they and the audience see. And small details tie in with character observations in ways that further strengthen the links between all the aspects of the production.
A harsh, haunting story, brilliantly and beautifully told.