'Hangmen': Theater Review

Hangmen Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Simon Annand
Text, cast, direction and stagecraft conspire to produce an outstanding work of contemporary drama.

This first new play in five years from Martin McDonagh ('The Cripple of Inishmaan') is a cruel black farce starring David Morrissey as Britain's second-best executioner.

A vertiginous blend of high-quality writing, casting and stagecraft, the Royal Court's production of Martin McDonagh's latest work, Hangman, vibrates like a taut rope. This cruelly funny black comedy set in 1965, about Britain's second-best professional executioner, is a period-appropriate homage of sorts to Joe Orton and early Harold Pinter. A fierce farce full of menace and wit, it's just as exportable to smart, sophisticated audiences as McDonagh's earlier standouts, like London-to-Broadway transfers The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman. It's also a welcome return, being the playwright's first new work for the stage since Behanding of Spokane bowed on Broadway in 2010, and his first London premiere in more than a decade.

The production features David Morrissey (best known beyond his theater work as "The Governor" on TV's The Walking Dead) and Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen). While McDonagh has so far resisted adapting his plays for the screen, it would be no surprise if he eventually transplanted most or all of this excellent cast into a film version, following up on his success as a writer-director with In Bruges and the less acclaimed Seven Psychopaths. That said, the stage is probably this claustrophobic story's most effective arena.

The opening scene, set in 1963 per a cinematic projection, is effectively a prologue showing protagonist Harry Wade (Morrissey) at work at a job he clearly enjoys: hanging people from their necks until they are dead. The condemned on this particular day is Hennessy (Josef Davies), a man who declares with particular vehemence that he's innocent. But then again, they nearly all say that.

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After the imperious Wade, assisted by his underling Syd (Shearsmith) and assorted guards, have done the deed, the entire jail-room set lifts up into the Royal Court's high rafters to reveal a new setting, a pub where most of the remaining action takes place. The movement emphasizes the vertical axis in a work all about symbolic and literal long, deep drops.

It's now two years on, the day that hanging is being legally abolished. Wade has retired from the execution business to run a pub in his hometown Oldham alongside his permanently tipsy wife Alice (Sally Rogers), whose beehived hair is always just a bit askew. The regulars include career alcoholics Bill (Graeme Hawley), Charlie (Ryan Pope) and Arthur (Simon Rouse, who has the fewest lines but all of them zingers), a tightly tuned trio in comic harmony with the bass notes emanating from local constable Inspector Fry (Ralph Ineson) in the corner.

Journalist Clegg (James Dryden) has come seeking an interview with Wade to mark the momentous day. Although he's tight-lipped at first, the mere mention of Wade's main rival Albert Pierrepoint (a real historical figure, played here by John Hodgkinson) sets him boasting about the 233 men he's put to death. (There would have been more if he'd signed up to help with the condemned from Nuremberg, but "it were Grand National week" at the time.) Rounding out the cast, Wade and Alice's insecure teenage daughter Shirley (newcomer Bronwyn James, nailing it) drifts up and down the stairs, while a mysterious stranger from down South named Mooney (Johnny Flynn) comes in off the street, trailing an ineffable air of menace.  

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For audiences not familiar with McDonagh's stealthy narrative strategies, the first half may seem almost meandering and sub-Pinter-esque as the pints flow and the barbed backchat pings back and forth while the men, like a troupe of primates, establish the hierarchy. But there is a clear method at work, and while the script never devolves into some kind of contrived tedious issue-led drama, it is squarely about revenge, justice and state-sanctioned and privately committed acts of violence — all that juicy stuff.

But the show is at its very best in the second half, when the farce reaches melting point in an almost hour-long single scene that climaxes with a surprise visit and a separate, fatally timed late arrival.

Throughout, the cast bites into McDonagh's well-tuned dialogue with relish, pounding out the rhythms with rat-a-tat speed. The lines cut deep with humorous cruelty, not so much because of the content itself but the aggression with which they're delivered, and the way little running jokes keep bobbing back up to the surface. Although Morrissey and Shearsmith (the twosome would make a great Morcambe & Wise tribute act), along with Flynn, have the meatiest roles, it's a tight ensemble rehearsed to lockstep perfection.

Director Matthew Dunster (who has overseen productions for the RSC and the Globe) finds smart ways to supplement the script with exaggerated blocking and physical goofing that ups the comic ante throughout. Joshua Carr's lighting, relying on onstage fluorescents and selectively deployed spots, adds an extra level of menace, as does Ian Dickinson's discreetly effective sound design.

Cast: David Morrissey, Johnny Flynn, Reece Shearsmith, Josef Davies, James Dryden, Graeme Hawley, John Hodgkinson, Ralph Ineson, Bronwyn James, Ryan Pope, Sally Rogers, Simon Rouse
Playwright: Martin McDonagh
Director: Matthew Dunster
Set & costume designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting designer: Joshua Carr
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph
Fight director:  Kate Waters
Dialect coach: Zabarjad Salam
Presented by Royal Court Theatre