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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre


  Graeme Hawley, Ryan Pope and Simon Rouse/ Ph: Simon Annand

It is sad but true that there are very few playwrights in Britain today (or in America for that matter) whose work is sufficiently accomplished to guarantee bums on seats even before the reviews appear and whose openings are awaited with great expectations. Tom Stoppard, David Hare and Caryl Churchill fall into that category, and so does Martin McDonagh, who with his first new indigenous play for over a decade continues to be the most exciting and entertaining dramatist we have.
The brilliantly written and constructed Hangmen finds him at the very top of his game with all his characteristic trademarks flashing like welcoming beacons in a very black night – black, of course, being the defining colour of his outrageous sense of humour. His in-your-face ability to shock has lost none of its impact, and from start to finish the dialogue is outrageously funny, his turns of phrase bracingly Ortonesque. With the exception of The Play that Goes Wrong, it’s the funniest play in town. 
Unusually for McDonagh, all of whose plays have been set in Ireland, Hangmen takes place in England. It’s 1963 and the brief opening scene is set in a grim, airless prison cell in 1963. Harry Wade (David Morrissey), deputy to real-life Albert Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson), the country’s official hangman, is overseeing the hanging of a prisoner called Hennessy (Josef Davies). As Wade slips the noose and hood over the convict’s head, he’s deaf to the man’s vigorous pleas that he’s innocent. Routinely Wade pulls the lever that sends Hennessy to his death.
The scene then moves to Oldham – to a typical male-orientated pub owned by Wade and his wife Alice (Sally Rogers). It’s 1965, or to be more specific, the very day that hanging was abolished in England. Although forever in the shadow of Pierrepoint, Wade is, in his own way, something of a small-time celebrity, and his clientele includes a faithful albeit oafish gathering of locals who would appear to enjoy the macabre frisson of death-by-association exuded by the self-important executioner publican.
Still, revelling in his grim occupation as hangman, Wade uses the historic occasion to give a boastful interview to a local journalist (James Dryden), which results in a heated confrontation with the legendary Pierrepoint, who, with gleeful vindictiveness, cruelly exposes Wade’s mediocrity as a man.
Pivotal to the plot, however, is the appearance of a decidedly Pinteresque stranger called Mooney (Johnny Flynn). Blond, youthful in appearance, calculatingly engaging while at times vaguely reminiscent of Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer, he exudes a strong sense of quiet menace as he becomes the fulcrum on which is balanced a sinister plot involving the disappearance of Harry and Alice Wade’s overweight 16-year-old daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James). Also part of this beguiling mix of mischief and mayhem is Syd (Reece Shearsmith), Wade’s resentful, decidedly weird, possibly pervy assistant.
Weaving its way through the heart and soul of this black and cynical comedy is a serious issue relating to crime and punishment and the irrevocable miscarriages of justice during the hanging years. McDonagh is never preachy, but his views involving capital punishment, while hardly definitive, come across loud and clear.
The play is flawlessly directed by Matthew Dunster, whose deft, unsqueamish approach to material that could easily be considered unedifying, makes for exhilarating theatre. There’s a jaw-dropping sight gag towards the end of the play involving Syd and an on-stage corpse that gets the biggest laugh in a play that positively bristles with them.
All the performances are terrific – notably Morrissey’s Wade, Flynn’s Mooney, Shearsmith’s Syd and John Hodgkinson’s brief but impact-making apppearance as Pierrepoint. Also contributing immeasurably to this unqualified, not-to-be-missed success is Anna Fleischle’s set, whose transition from the first scene in the prison cell to the pub in Oldham is a coup d’theatre in itself. My play of the year so far.


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