Having missed this Royal Court production during its original run earlier this autumn, I was very pleased to get a second chance at its new West End home, the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Martin McDonagh’s first new UK play in ten years certainly didn’t disappoint, providing, as one would expect from him, a darkly comical and disturbing evening’s entertainment, this time on the subject of the acceptability of the notion of killing people as a punishment for killing people. In 2015, the idea of capital punishment in the UK is one that seems alien to most of us, but only 50 years ago it was the accepted punishment and so-called deterrent for such crimes. Through McDonagh’s play we are given an insight not in to the criminals, but those whose job it was to carry out their final sentence. What type of person would do such a job and what effect would that perhaps have on their attitude to violence?
We begin by witnessing the hanging of a young man, terrified and strongly protesting his innocence. Hamgman Harry Wade (David Morrissey) (inspired by real life hangman Harry Allen) has heard it all before many times and has a job to do, one he clearly takes great pride in. Indeed he is offended when his ability is questioned and compared to his greatest rival Pierrepoint, now retired, but in whose shadow Wade remains. Via a truly brilliant set change, the play fast forwards two years to 1965 and more specifically the day on which hanging is abolished in the UK.
The landlord of his own Oldham pub as well as a hangman, Harry is surrounded by his regulars, who clearly view him as a type of celebrity, morbidly fascinated by his tales of death, as someone who has legally killed over 200 people. In to the bar walks a mysterious young man, Peter Mooney, whose motives are unclear, but whose manner gives a sense of a possible darker reason for his arrival, which may have repercussions for this Oldham group.
Hangmen is terrific. First and foremost, the script is brilliant as McDonagh’s characters and the world we find them in effortlessly switches from quick-witted comedy to a much darker black humour, making you feel slightly uncomfortable at times. The dialogue is razor sharp and there are some genuinely superb exchanges and one-liners. His other skill is conceiving a play during which you are never quite sure where it’s going. Just when you think you know, something shifts, as the play twists and turns around who Mooney is and why he has appeared in Harry’s pub. There are also some wonderful visual descriptions through the dialogue, which you can picture in your mind – for example, I’ll never think about a box of Weetabix again without remembering this play!
It’s a very effective way of approaching the topic of capital punishment, brutality and what society perceives as suitable justice, as well as highlighting in a darkly funny way, how our perceptions of someone or something may not always be correct.
It is fantastically brought to life by its cast (most of whom have transferred with it from Sloane Square). David Morrissey is on fine form as Harry, regarded to his annoyance as the second greatest hangman after his rival Pierrepoint. His arrogant, overly confident and often offensive attitude is evident from the start. He did a job, which until that day was seen as one of a servant of the justice system and he is proud of his contribution to delivering justice. He is also a man who isn’t quite ready to let go of the power, authority and status his role provided and so uses his position amongst the pub regulars to maintain his self-importance. It’s only on the arrival of Mooney that we see someone not impressed or intimidated by him and the power starts to shift.
There are fine supporting performances by all, but especially from Andy Nyman as Harry’s former assistant Syd, who clearly felt humiliated by Harry over the years, Simon Rouse as the half-deaf pub regular and Bronwyn James as Harry’s shy daughter Shirley. To say this is her stage debut, she is very good and will be someone I’ll look out for in the future. Then there is John Hodgkinson as Pierrepoint, the greatest hangman and his effect on Harry is amusing to see.
However, the stand-out performance in Hangmen is that of Johnny Flynn, whose stage career continues to grow following successes such as Jerusalem and Twelfth Night, both alongside Mark Rylance. As the mysterious southern stranger Mooney he is at the heart of the play as much as Harry is. From the moment he appears he has your attention. There is just something about him that makes you feel uneasy and that unease only continues to grow as the play reaches the second half. Flynn’s skill is making Mooney a fully-formed character and one you can never quite work out. Charming, witty, polite, while also conveying a darker, more disturbing edge (he’d describe it as “quietly menacing”), he is incredibly entertaining to watch. It’s a performance that stays with you and should certainly receive recognition next awards season.
The other star is Anna Fleischle’s set, which is one of the best I’ve seen this year. The initial change from prison cell to pub interior is impressive in its execution and the mood and atmosphere are enhanced by the realism of the setting before you. The use of the multi-level space in places is also very clever.
Hangmen is a superb achievement and continues McDonagh’s style of using black humour to tackle uncomfortable issues (I’m still chilled by The Pillowman when I think of it now!). It may not be a topic that you would immediately think you’d want to see a play about, but the quality of the writing and acting here make this one I cannot recommend highly enough.