Royal Court 10th September – 10th October. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
It’s been ten years since Martin McDonagh’s last UK play – but it was well worth the wait.
Hangmen is full of the black humour and deft dialogue that makes McDonagh’s work so memorable, and is performed with relish by the wonderful cast.
The play begins with a hanging. It is 1963 and a young man dies protesting his innocence. This opening scene is brutally funny and shocking, but ends with something near a meditation on the hangman’s noose.
The action then jumps to the second anniversary of this hanging – the day that hanging is abolished. Harry Wade (David Morrissey) runs a pub in Oldham and is a big fish in a very small pond – more of a puddle really. He is surrounded by sycophantic drinkers angling for a free half and is goaded into giving an interview about his career as a hangman. A mysterious stranger (Johnny Flynn) comes to the pub and stirs up trouble, followed by a visit from Harry’s old assistant Sid (Reece Shearsmith), who was dismissed in disgrace. When Harry’s daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James) disappears, the men fear the worst.
David Morrissey is full of swagger and ridiculous self importance as Harry. His petty jealousy and competition with Pierrepoint – the number one hangman – descends into playground insults. Morrissey masterfully portrays the insecurity of the man and strips away the bravado to show moments of a father’s helpless despair.
When Shearsmith is on stage, you cannot keep your eyes off him. This is a finely nuanced performance – every gesture and glance is relevant and usually very, very funny.
Flynn is enigmatic and menacing as the stranger Mooney. He has many long, almost stream of consciousness speeches, and changes tone and mood in an instant mid sentence. Very unsettling. His scenes with the female cast members are deliciously uncomfortable, and he delivers McDonagh’s fantastic insults about the North with a biting malice.
The whole cast give superb performances, with impeccable timing and rapport. Ralph Ineson is at his laconic best as Inspector Fry, who would much rather be nursing a pint than solving a crime, and Simon Rouse is hysterical as Arthur, the old man in the pub who needs everything repeated before he gives his own scathing opinions.
The sets are brilliantly atmospheric – I expected Fletch and Godber to walk into the prison cell, and you can almost smell the stale beer in the pub.
You may feel a little smug at the interval, thinking that you have worked out exactly what is going on, but that certainty is demolished within the first two minutes of the second act. McDonagh cleverly leaves Harry and Sid to sum up what has actually happened, or not happened, in their own bluff way at the end of the play as they consider guilt, innocence and justice.
Hangmen is a darkly funny, twisting and twisted tale by a master of the genre. Go and see it!