Martin McDonagh’s international hit had its premiere in 1996 but, in form, it could date from any time in the preceding century. Theatregoers since Ibsen would recognise the single set with its realistic representation of a Connemara cottage, the two-act structure and the story of a grown-up daughter whose dreams are thwarted by the demands of a cantankerous mother.
The electric kettle, the packets of Complan and the absence of mobile phones allow you to put a more precise date on it, but the appeal of The Beauty Queen of Leenane lies partly in its timelessness.
That extends to the techniques used by McDonagh, whose The Banshees of Inisherin has just opened in cinemas. He fields not one but two undelivered letters, a melodramatic ploy Thomas Hardy would have enjoyed and one that still makes an audience gasp. And any student of Irish drama will be familiar with the theme of emigration, the tension between the romance of rural Ireland and economic survival elsewhere.
Throw in the Hiberno-English sentence structures and a cast of unworldly characters, amusing in their lack of sophistication, and you have a tragicomedy with deep roots in tradition. Yet this is no pastiche. McDonagh is in earnest. He holds our attention with an excruciating clash of characters who are locked in a plot that is equal parts funny, sad and violent.
Director Liz Stevenson pays careful attention to all this in an assured production that duly gets the Keswick audience crying out in despair at the wrong but inevitable decisions. Perched on the edge of her rocking chair, Susan Twist is compellingly awful as Mag, the controlling old mother whose sweet smile belies a vicious temperament. Eyes quick, hands crunched, mouth gurning, she plays the helpless invalid while staying fiendishly sharp.
Elizabeth Appleby understands that 40-year-old Maureen is both openly contemptuous of her mother and fatally under her grip. Unsmiling, tetchy and direct, she keeps things comically uncomfortable. Only when Cillian Ó Gairbhí shows up as Pato, very much not the playboy of the western world, does she reveal her inner beauty queen. With Cameron Tharma completing the quartet as Pato’s kid brother Ray, it makes for an evening as familiar as it is unsettling.
At Theatre by the Lake, until 11 November.