Peter Kay has a joke that goes: “Old people. You can’t beat them.”
The joke works much better on stage than in print. If you don’t get it, great, you can’t be offended by it. It’s a similar kind of dark humour that belongs categorically in one of the two plays I’m going to discuss and categorically not in the other.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Hull Truck Theatre and Jadek, which is touring Yorkshire venues are two plays linked by the theme of looking after elderly relatives. They deal with the subject in wildly different ways.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the play that announced Martin McDonagh to the theatre world before he went off to conquer the film world and win Oscars, Golden Globes and the like.
Premiered in 1996, it was the first of what became known, along with A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, as McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy. It is a deeply disturbing piece of theatre. Funny and black as hell, but it sends a chill through the spine like few theatre pieces can.
How Yorkshire’s theatres are beating austerity cuts for the artsMark Babych, artistic director at Hull Truck Theatre, is responsible for bringing the play to the stage in the new Hull Truck production of the play that is now over two decades old.
Why return it to the stage now?
“First of all, it’s a fantastic story that grips the audience from beginning to end with its ability to blend humour and pathos,” says Babych. “It features rich, surprising and relatable characters caught up in an extreme situation, building to a thrilling and tense climax. It’s extremely funny, sad, brutal and deadly honest – a great night out to the theatre.”
It is a great night out, but it does feel like the play should come with a warning. I first saw the play a dozen years ago and driving home after the production I kept checking my rear view mirror for, I’m not sure what, but I do know the play seriously spooked me.
Review: Reasons To Stay Alive - Sheffield Crucible StudioIt tells the story of 40-year-old Maureen Folan who lives with her manipulative and possessive mother, Mag. Trapped in a poisonous cycle of daily battles, endless rain outside and endless torment inside, the tension is ratcheted up to snapping point and a horrifying climax. If you’ve seen McDonagh’s film work including In Bruges or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, you’ll understand the kind of punches his writing refuses to pull.
Babych says: “Beauty Queen is – I think – the pinnacle of the Leenane trilogy due to the depth of the characters and the story’s substantial emotional punch. Amidst all the chaos McDonagh creates for his characters onstage, you have to really care about what’s happening to these people and understand why they are driven to the lengths and extremes that they go to – he manages to do this brilliantly, like any great storyteller.”
Hull, says Babych, is the perfect place for this piece. McDonagh’s work has performed well in Hull in the past, with the production of The Lonesome West being a particularly strong piece in the old Hull Truck building.
“While the setting of the play is rural Ireland, I think our audiences will really relate to the sense of being distanced from the rest of the country, the sense of being isolated and, to quote a line from the play, the sense of being part of a place where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
How Leeds-based Opera North is working to make the arts more accessible for people with dementia“I think they’ll love the down- to-earth and deadly humour, whilst being fascinated and drawn in by the relatable relationship between the elderly Mother and her daughter – who has been left by the rest of the family to care for her.”
While a familial relationship – albeit a seriously dark and disturbing one – is at the heart of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a new play from Yorkshire writer Francesca Joy explores the same subject from a very different place.
Jadek is a semi-autobiographical piece of work from Joy about a woman in her 20s moving in with her blind, 94-year-old Polish grandfather.
The play explores how the unexpected coming together of this odd couple affected both their lives. Like the Hull Truck production, audiences will see the way older and younger relatives impact on each other’s lives, although Joy’s play comes from a very different place.
Joy says: “Living with my grandad changed the way I saw the arts and ultimately, how I saw the world. When a child grows up in a family of violence, they experience the same brain patterns as a solider at war. Me and my grandad both grew up as soldiers. He taught me how to stand up for what I believe in.”
The play tells the story of Grandad, who found a home in Yorkshire in 1945 following six years of fighting in the Second World War. Tasha, the granddaughter of the play, has been fighting her own wars on the homefront and finds herself brought together with her grandfather in a cruel twist of fate.
Joy has worked with BAFTA winning writer Mark Catley as an advisor on the script.
“Jadek is a beautiful story that starts small and ends up universal. The dialogue between Grandfather and Granddaughter is so entertaining you’ll want to move in too. The revelations are breath-taking,” he says.
The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Jadek, two stories both alike in subject matter, both ready to take your breath away - in very different ways.
Beauty Queen of Leenane and Jadek
The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Hull Truck Theatre, to October 26. Tickets 01482 323638 or hulltruck.co.uk
Jadek is on tour:
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, November 6. Tickets sjt.uk.com
Cast, Doncaster, November 12. Tickets castindoncaster.com
Theatre Deli, Sheffield, November 14. Tickets theatredeli.co.uk
Slung Low, Leeds, November 17. Tickets slunglow.org
Square Chapel, Halifax, November 21. Tickets squarechapel.org.uk
Barnsley Civic, December 4. Tickets barnsleycivic.co.uk