The Beauty Queen of Leenane is such a brilliantly structured, tightly wound play that it keeps you on tenterhooks even if you’ve seen it before and know what’s coming. At the opening night of the new, stunning Sydney Theatre Company production you could hear audible gasps, intakes of breath and barely suppressed groans from the audience as playwright Martin McDonagh turned the screws.

Yael Stone and Noni Hazlehurst. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Premiered by Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company in 1996, it was the debut play for McDonagh, the renowned Anglo-Irish writer who would go on to write other darkly comic dramas including The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Pillowman, as well as screenplays for the films In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is set in a remote Irish cottage, which smells of urine for reasons you’ll discover, where 40-year-old virgin Maureen Folan (Yael Stone) and her demanding mother Mag (Noni Hazlehurst) live together in a destructive, co-dependent relationship. They clearly enjoy baiting each other and are locked in a daily battle in their isolated, impoverished world where biscuits, unstirred Complan and hand-delivered letters are used as weapons.

Beyond the walls of their home, Leenane – which we hear about but never see – is a stultifying place where everyone knows everyone else, and what they’re up to; a place where no one seems to bat an eye at priests punching babies or a man lopping off the ears of his rival’s dog.

Then Ray Dooley (Shiv Palekar) arrives at their cottage with a message from his brother Pato (Hamish Michael) – who spends most of his time working in London – to invite them to a party. Mag tries to prevent Maureen finding out, but she goes, reconnects with Pato, and suddenly it looks as if her life might change. Love, and with it escape, might finally be possible. But not if her manipulative mother can help it.

Shiv Palekar and Noni Hazlehurst. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Paige Rattray directs a stunning production with such truthful, deeply felt performances from all four cast members that at times you forget you’re at the theatre, it just feels so incredibly, horribly real.

Renée Mulder’s set design transports you to soggy Leenane. The exterior of the Folans’ stone cottage with its turf roof, perched on a steep, muddy hill, glowers darkly as the audience enters the theatre. It has the feel of a witch’s house in a fairytale. The stage then turns to reveal the claustrophobic interior, with Rattray using the revolve cleverly throughout the play to evoke the passing of time.

Inside, the house is grimy, dingy and unkempt. Mag spends most of the play sitting in an armchair dressed in grubby clothes or a dressing gown, while Maureen starts the evening in a sweat shirt with a (telling) picture of the pottery scene in the film Ghost, before donning a skimpy black dress for the party. The set design is moodily etched by Paul Jackson’s shadowy lighting.

Hazlehurst hardly moves yet the subtle changes in her expressions speak reams. She wheedles and whines to get Maureen to do things for her, she casts furtive glances as she sizes things up, and her lips occasionally twitch with anger. At times, she can’t help herself and she cruelly reveals things to belittle Maureen, even though she knows that the comment is bound to get a reaction. When Maureen turns on her, her flaccid body seems to slump even further.

Shiv Palekar. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Stone’s embittered, almost girlish Maureen is a mixture of defiant anger and vulnerability. She tosses the teabags at the wall after making a cuppa, and forces her mother to eat cold, lumpy porridge, yet you sense that she is fragile and on the edge. Her awkwardness with Pato is touching, her bravado with her mother after his visit slightly manic.

The cat-and-mouse game between Maureen and Mag is riveting, as McDonagh keeps your sympathies oscillating. The behaviour of both is odious at times, and yet you understand Maureen’s loneliness and desperation, her need for love, and her resentment at being a skivvy, as well Mag’s fear of being left to fend for herself.

The dazzling performances by Hazlehurst and Stone, are matched by Palekar and Michael, who are both pitch-perfect in their roles. Palekar plays Ray with a bogan swagger mixed with a hyper restlessness, which keeps erupting into such frustration at being stuck in the house waiting to deliver a message or a letter that he literally bangs his head.

Yael Stone and Hamish Michael. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Michael meanwhile brings a gentle tenderness to the play as the kind, understanding Pato. You could have heard a pin drop among the audience, when he read out the letter he was sending to Maureen: a beautiful moment of hope in a dark play.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is savagely funny, horrifying at times, and desperately sad. You know that McDonagh is using time-honoured theatrical devices to tighten the fateful plot, but Rattray directs the play with such intelligence and empathy, and draws such mesmerising performances from the cast, that the play doesn’t release you from its grip for one second until its devastating end.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until December 21