Martin McDonagh

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

02/01/18

Martin McDonagh is an interesting writer/director. His plays are always stupendous and his first foray into cinema, In Bruges, is a five star solid gold masterpiece (and one, incidentally, that just won ‘best Christmas movie’ in our recent ‘World Cup of Everything’ game). The follow-up, however – Seven Psychopaths – wasn’t anything like as assured. Indeed, in a recent interview, McDonagh (with refreshing honesty in a business not usually associated with that sentiment) admits that he took his eye off the ball during the making of it. Now Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives amidst much muttering about potential Oscar wins. The truth is, it’s an interesting film but, sadly, not in the same league as In Bruges. Having said that, it’s still worth your consideration.

In the remote town of Ebbing, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on a lonely stretch of country road and has them papered with three simple slogans. It’s been seven months since her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered and, enraged by the lack of any progress in the resulting police investigation, Mildred has decided to start pointing the finger of blame, primarily at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). He’s understandably miffed by this approach, particularly as he’s recently had a cancer diagnosis and knows that his days are numbered. But Mildred is not about to give up on her mission, even if it is set to make her and her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the most unpopular people in the county. Meanwhile, openly racist policeman, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is not above taking the law into his own hands…

As I said, this isn’t a perfect film but there’s plenty here to admire, not least McDormand’s searing performance in the lead role, brilliantly portraying a woman so obsessed with her daughter’s death that she’s willing to go to any lengths to obtain justice, no matter what the cost. Rockwell too, is splendid, managing to give his initially unsympathetic character some degree of redemption, and Harrelson delivers what just might be his best turn since Cheers. But there are plot strands here that don’t quite convince. Some of the minor characters are never fully developed and others seem to step in for one cracking scene and are never seen again. (I’m thinking here of the scene where Mildred exchanges some crackling dialogue with the town priest. It’s brilliant but it feels unresolved.) Likewise, Peter Dinklage’s turn as (as one character refers to him) ‘the town midget,’ a sweet-natured drunkard who carries a torch for Mildred. And is it just the presence of McDormand and that distinctive Carter Burwell score that make this feel eerily like an early Coen brothers movie?

Whether or not Oscar will come knocking for this film is debatable. Certainly if we’re talking ‘best actress,’ I for one wouldn’t be making any objections – I’ve long been of the opinion that McDormand is one of the best there is. But while this is a huge step up from Seven Psychopaths, it’s perhaps not quite the total masterpiece that many are claiming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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Theatre Bouquets 2016

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We’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing theatre again in 2016. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of the year.

Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

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An excellent start to the year’s theatrical viewing, Martin McDonagh’s play was absolutely superb: funny, frightening and thought-provoking with an outstanding central performance by David Morrissey.

The Girls – The Lowry, Salford

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This was the biggest surprise of the year for us: on paper, it sounded a million miles away from the sort of thing we usually enjoy, and we went along reluctantly. But it was a truly delightful production – flawlessly realised.

The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford

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Northern Broadsides version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a rambunctious, irreverent take on the tale, with the inimitable Barrie Rutter clearly relishing the role of Falstaff.

I Am Thomas – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A strange and eclectic production, telling the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy, this was essentially a series of vignettes and musical interludes, with an ensemble taking turns to play the eponymous role.

King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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Michael Buffong’s King Lear was a tour de force, a gimmick-free yet undeniably modern production. Don Warrington was well-cast in the central role, but it was Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia who really stood out for us. She’s definitely one to watch!

Stowaway – Home, Manchester

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Analogue Theatre’s troubling tale of a stowaway falling from a flying aeroplane and landing in the car park of a DIY store was fascinating, depicting a moment where worlds collide and understandings begin to take root. A thought-provoking, political play.

Royal Vauxhall – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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A quirky and irreverent musical, telling the true story of when Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dressed Princess Diana in drag and took her to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London for a night out, incognito. We loved this production.

Wonderman – Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh

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Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life – Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales was a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart.

Cracked Tiles – Spotlites, Edinburgh

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This beautifully crafted monologue, written and performed by Lorenzo Novani, was the downbeat tale of a young man who inherits a Glasgow fish and chip shop from his father Aldo. Novani was quite staggering as Riccardo.

Dear Home Office – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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This was the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys. The play was an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts. A raw and truthful exposé.

The Suppliant Women – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to us, as we sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Truly brilliant.

Grain in the Blood – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A real one-off, this was a stark, unnerving chiller, at once contemporary and classical, with dialogue that was taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts. This was a complex, angular, unwieldy play – a fascinating watch.

Jack and the Beanstalk – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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By far the best panto we have ever seen, this was a standout production, with fantastic performances from King’s Theatre regulars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott. It brought the year to a celebratory end.

Susan Singfield

Hangmen

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17/01/16

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.

5 stars

Philip Caveney