Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Martin McDonagh’s latest play, Hangmen, marks a significant change from his earlier, Ireland-bound dark comedies – but it shares with them an incredible ear for dialogue and an uncanny knack for finding humour in the bleakest of situations. If you thought The Lieutenant of Inishmore pushed this quality as far as it could go, then prepare yourselves to go just a little bit further. If I told you that this play begins with a man pleading for his life, just moments before his execution, you probably wouldn’t expect to be laughing out loud. But trust me, you will be. Originally a Royal Court production, Hangmen has now transferred to the Wyndham Theatre, where it’s playing to packed houses every night and it’s easy to see how it has achieved its ‘hot ticket’ status.
We start in the gaol cell of convicted murderer, Hennessy (Josef Davies), about to be despatched by Britain’s current chief hangman, Harry Wade (David Morrissey). It’s a brief and shocking scene, the humour suddenly extinguished by the brutal execution itself; and then, just as you’re starting to wonder how they will ever manage to change the setting, the entire cell – walls, floor, door and furnishings – rises majestically upwards into the flies, revealing the interior of a pub beneath. It’s a jaw-dropping transition.
It’s now two years later, 1965. Wade is the landlord of a pub in Oldham and the death penalty has just been abolished. Wade is coasting on his former reputation and is still indulging in an old rivalry with the more famous Albert Pierrepoint, also now a pub landlord in nearby Failsworth. Harry has surrounded himself with a coterie of cronies, who, if you’ll forgive the pun, hang on his every word and treat him as some kind of grotesque celebrity. They are not so much customers as his Greek chorus, commenting hilariously on the action and applauding every twisted thing he says.
Matters take a strange turn with the arrival of Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a smooth-talking Southerner, who seems to know a lot about Hennesy, who went to his death protesting his innocence. Mooney applies to lodge at the pub by exerting his charm on Wade’s wife, Alice (Sally Rogers) and, more especially, on his shy daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James). It’s apparent from the word ‘go’ that Mooney knows something and he’s come here to make trouble – but what is his connection to the events of the past?
On the night we attend, there’s a technical fault that means the proceedings have to be briefly halted at a very suspenseful moment. We’re worried this might ruin the experience, but the cast respond brilliantly, snapping straight back into character and taking the action on again, without breaking stride. The concluding scenes wrack up the suspense to almost unbearable levels.
Hangmen is a brilliant production, that deserves every accolade that’s been thrown at it, and it confirms McDonagh as one our finest contemporary playwrights. Tickets are in very short supply, but if you can get hold of one, do so, because this is simply too good to miss.