This is a slow burner. Smouldering characterisation and slow-cooked thematic red herrings scorch their way to a denouement of Ortonesque black-farce and Pythonesque delivery. We are in the early Sixties and Capital Punishment is on the verge of being abolished.
The central character is Harry Wade (David Morrissey): a publican by trade who does state-sponsored death as a hobby; or is it Hangman by trade who is a publican as a hobby? Either way Harry is a lurcher: he lurches from arrogant holder-of-court I’m-speaking-so-shut-up-and-listen opinionator to frightened rabbit in the headlights. There is guilt lurking beneath the surface here, the guilt of untold nightmares and fear of being seen as on the wrong side of justice.
Morrissey’s is a superb portrayal of this kind of wannabe megalomaniac who is apparently wracked by not having any guilt and who never minces his weasel words. He dominates and domineers, he bullies, belittles and ultimately bows to the pressures of expediency.
By contrast Mooney is a sniveler. He snivels and probes and provokes and deceives and leads everyone, including the audience, a merry dance. I say merry but it would be better depicted as dance macabre. Mooney just turns up at Harry’s pub, apparently, in a vaguely menacing sort of way. We later discover it is more contrived than that but whilst in the mahoganised, old-fashioned comfort of the smoky saloon bar, with its regular bores and boring regulars, he prods and nudges his way through the smoke of the pub and mirrors of his own devising. This is a clever delineation by Johnny Flynn of a flawed psychopath: flawed because he is desperate to find something to be psychopathic about. We know from The Pillowman that McDonagh does dysfunctional dialogue well. Mooney sniffs out flights of fancy about gorillas and nuns and sand and paraplegics and it is all at turns wickedly funny and funnily wicked.
Long-suffering, gin-swilling Alice, Harry’s wife, (Sally Rogers) is suitably Sixties’ pre-Greer down-trodden northern doormat, despite having a sharp tongue when required, and their daughter, 15-year-old Shirley (Bronwyn James) is moodily effective despite her big teenage-angst-anti-parent speech being difficult to pick-up: audibility, in the stalls, was slightly problematic from time to time which may be the result of the recent transfer from the more intimate Royal Court to the acoustically cavernous (though beautifully appointed) Wyndham’s theatre, though I’m sure this will improve as the run develops.
The pub regulars lend excellent comic support throughout and Syd (Andy Nyman), Harry’s former assistant, is the worm that turned, but still a worm for all that. And John Hodgkinson as Albert Pierrepoint, Harry’s bitter rival in the art of rope-end strangulation, bludgeons onto the scene, all trench-coat and moustache with stale-Brylcreemed smelly hair, to stick it to Harry in the certain self-knowledge that he is the superior hatchet-man and he can prove it: after all, Pierrepoint despatched Germans. He reminded me of Inspector Truscott (from Loot), though more like Truscott’s larger and grimmer older brother, and the dramatic irony in this scene is delicious confirming that McDonagh is a fully paid up member of the Joe Orton black farce fan club.
A remarkable design by Anna Fleischle (with lighting by Joshua Carr) ensures that the set of Hangmen is one of the stars. Starting with a stark jail cell where the prisoner meets his end at the hands, eventually, of Harry, this magically disappears into the sky to be replaced by the saloon bar in which most of the rest of the action takes place. At one point though we have a conversation between Mooney and Syd in a typical sixties ‘caff’, complete with plastic-covered conjoined table and seats and one of those squeezy-tomatoes that dispenses ketchup: the café dangles above the darkened pub emphasising the out-of-body experience that people get, I am reliably informed (cf The Clink), when they are hung. Or hanged – which is, as we are amusingly reminded at regular regular intervals, the correct terminology.
I suppose hanging isn’t necessarily a conventional subject when planning an entertaining night out in the West End. But Hangmen will make you laugh. It will probably make you think as well, but mainly it will make you laugh. McDonagh gets you in his noose; gradually pulls it tighter and tighter; and leaves you nervously wondering when that trap-door is going to open.
Review by Peter Yates
Following a sell-out run at The Royal Court Theatre, Olivier and Academy Award® winner Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, The Cripple of Inishmaan, In Bruges) returns to the West End with Matthew Dunster’s award-winning production of Hangmen.
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.
Martin’s McDonagh’s theatre credits include The Beauty Queen of Leenane (the Royal Court), The Cripple of Inishmaan (National/West End/Broadway), The Pillowman (National/ Broadway), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (RSC/Garrick/Broadway) and A Behanding in Spokane (Broadway). For film (as Writer/Director) credits include Six Shooter (Short), In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Martin has been awarded the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy (The Lieutenant of Inishmore), an Olivier Award for Best New Play (The Pillowman), an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film (Six Shooter) and a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay (In Bruges).
Matthew Dunster directs as original cast members David Morrissey and Johnny Flynn reprise their roles.
Booking Until: 5th March 2015
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm