It may seem odd, or even grotesque, to use capital punishment as a backdrop for a comedy. The primary focus in Hangmen, however, is in the private lives of two executioners. However, the play is at first painful to watch, not because of any deficiency in the performance, but because James Hennessy (Josef Davies) is tied up and strapped down, protesting his innocence. No matter, as far as Harry Wade (David Morrissey) is concerned. The order has been given, and the job must be carried out. Wade’s assistant, Syd Armfield (Reece Shearsmith) raises laughs partly through his stutter, and then later through borderline ‘farce’, insofar as there are elements of physical humour and quite deliberate nonsense.
Wade is the epitome of the authoritarian northerner, or rather, the epitome of the authoritarian northerner as people outside the north see such folk, for whom ‘do as I say, not as I do’ would be a suitable personality summary. Martin McDonagh’s script subversively plays on southerners’ misunderstandings of strong northern accents. Shirley (Bronwyn James) mishears Wade saying ‘cloud’ for ‘clown’, despite being Wade’s daughter; Arthur (Simon Rouse), a pensioner without a hearing aid, only partially hears the conversations in Wade’s pub in the first place, allowing for (albeit somewhat predictable) hilarious responses to what he has heard. But what he has heard is not necessarily what was said…
Wade’s pithy putdowns were thoroughly enjoyed by this cultured audience at the Royal Court, some of whom I suspect may well identify with his dismissive retort: “Lodgers? They’re just animals!” In the end, however, it takes the famed Albert Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson) to come bursting in to Wade’s pub to repudiate Wade’s assertions to Clegg (James Dryden), a newspaper journalist from the Oldham Gazette, and to set the record straight.
It’s a brief but forceful and dynamic performance from Hodgkinson, whose Pierrepoint disarms Wade with the plain and simple truth. By the end, Wade’s own wife Alice (a subtle and likeable Sally Rogers) is acutely aware of what really happened when Wade was away from home during the week of the Grand National some years ago. She, like the audience, does not know exactly who did what to whom – it isn’t spelled out – but it doesn’t need to be. Wade’s failure to deny the allegation of infidelity is the greatest example in this production demonstrating that sometimes what is said is not as telling as what isn’t spoken.
While the laughs keep coming, it isn’t all about Wade. It was pleasing to see some character development in Shirley, with proper consideration given to her circumstances and teenage angst; there’s even a deep mother-daughter conversation, also laced with humour. There’s a compelling and spirited performance from Johnny Flynn as Peter Mooney, the play’s token Londoner, though exactly what Mooney’s business is in Oldham is never fully revealed, mostly because he finds himself, like Hennessy before him, being bullishly blamed by Wade for something he did not do.
A strong play, absorbing from start to finish, Hangmen explores the nature and consequences of execution by hanging, but without an instructive or patronising tone. It focuses more on the coming to terms with the passing of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 – and its comical approach is both insightful and vividly witty. The set utilises the space in the proscenium arch stage well – perhaps too well – I would go so far to suggest sitting in the circle rather than the stalls for the best view. It’s highly enjoyable, and it appears the public has already responded to its success, with the Royal Court reporting tickets only available to those prepared to day seat. I reply to Hangmen’s brash characters by being equally bold: I predict this short run will be followed by others in years to come.
Review by Chris Omaweng
‘I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint’
In his small pub in Oldham, Harry is something of a local celebrity. But what’s the second-best hangman in England to do on the day they’ve abolished hanging? Amongst the cub reporters and sycophantic pub regulars, dying to hear Harry’s reaction to the news, a peculiar stranger lurks, with a very different motive for his visit.
‘Don’t worry. I may have my quirks but I’m not an animal. Or am I? One for the courts to discuss.’
Martin McDonagh returns to the Royal Court with his first UK play in more than ten years. Matthew Dunster directs. With design by Anna Fleischle, lighting by Joshua Carr and sound by Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Cast includes Josef Davies, James Dryden, Johnny Flynn, Graeme Hawley, John Hodgkinson, Ralph Ineson, Bronwyn James, David Morrissey, Ryan Pope, Sally Rogers, Simon Rouse and Reece Shearsmith.
By Martin McDonagh
10th September – 10 October 2015
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Running time: 2 hour 15 min (inc interval)
There will be strobe lighting, smoking & haze effect used during this performance.
Saturday 19th September 2015