Does Hangmen Live Up To The Hype?
| By Liz Dyer
Hanging has never been so hilarious.
Martin McDonagh’s new play, Hangmen, which just transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre after a sell-out run at the Royal Court, is a unique combination of deliciously tense and laugh out loud funny. It’s 1965, hanging’s just been abolished and Harry Wade, pub landlord and Britain’s second best hangman, has plenty to say on the subject.
As he’s supported by his long suffering wife, his ‘mopey’ teenage daughter and an assortment of drunken regulars, Harry’s day is about to get a lot worse when Peter Mooney, a vaguely menacing stranger from down south, turns up, closely followed by Harry’s former assistant, Syd. As events begin to spiral out of control, this darkest of comedies twists and turns until nobody, on stage or in the audience, has a clue who’s good, who’s bad and who’s just a bit confused.
As funny as it is, Hangmen isn’t a particularly comfortable watch - much of the audience’s laughter is prompted as much by shock as it is by comedy, and often accompanied by a wince and a bit of awkward squirming. From the opening scene, in which a distraught prisoner is soothingly told that if he’d just kept calm he could have been dead by now, it’s clear this is a play that isn’t about to try and soften any blows. It also raises some important questions about justice; the hangman’s job, rightly or wrongly, is to carry out the sentence of the court, even if a prisoner goes to the noose protesting that he’s not guilty. So how much responsibility does the executioner then bear if it turns out that prisoner really was innocent after all?
A brilliant cast is led by David Morrissey as the bullying Harry, who has no respect for anyone, living or dead, and is more concerned about his petty rivalry with Albert Pierrepoint than the hundreds of lives he’s taken, or the fact that his dysfunctional family is falling apart around him. Andy Nyman is perfectly pathetic as Harry’s stammering former colleague, and Simon Rouse comes close to stealing the show as straight-talking (and deaf as a post) pub regular Arthur. But the stand out performance comes from Johnny Flynn as the unpredictable and strangely charismatic Mooney; it’s hard to look away any time he’s on the stage, and I think I could honestly sit and listen to him chatter on for hours and not get bored.
The multi-level set by Anna Fleischle is unexpectedly impressive, taking us from a harshly lit prison cell to the soft furnishings of Harry’s pub, in a clever and original set change. Then it’s over to Matthew Dunster’s production to ramp up the tension with a gripping plot, a dramatic thunderstorm and a couple of terrifyingly realistic noose-related stunts, culminating in an exquisitely timed final scene that has the entire audience on the edge of their seats - but still laughing, albeit extremely nervously.
Hangmen is a very hard play to summarise (believe me, I tried), because it’s such an unexpected combination of light-hearted and deadly serious. All I can say is that it more than lives up to the towering expectations inspired by its previous rave reviews, so get a ticket if you can and experience it for yourself.