25th January 2016
If you can trust anyone to execute a black comedy, it’s Martin McDonagh. The Irish playwright is an undoubted master of the genre, with an enviable back catalogue which includes The Pillowman, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and In Bruges. Hangmen is a worthy addition to his collection, offering a fascinating insight into the dark absurdities of a death-fixated culture. Set in 1960s Oldham, the prologue ends with a significant hanging, the backlash from which drives much of the narrative. Strikingly, as the actors depart the stage, the hangman’s noose tantalisingly withdraws into the ceiling, out of sight, yet fixed in the audience’s mind. Though it is a world without executioners, the memory of their rough justice remains.
Hangmen tells the story of Harry Wade (David Morrissey), a celebrated hangman who must take stock of his redundant profession. Yet Harry is not a man to let past glories fade. The pub he runs with his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers), is filled with awed patrons, enabling him to hold court to his heart’s content. This satisfactory retirement is disturbed by the arrival of Peter Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a self-assured and enigmatic young man with a mysterious agenda. A conspicuous outsider, his presence turns malignant after a sinister conversation with the Wades’ oblivious teenage daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James), in which he offers to drive her to visit a friend at a Burnley asylum. When Harry’s estranged former assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) arrives at the pub, conversation turns to the contentious hanging of a supposed sex attacker. Syd believes to have met the real culprit, and Harry is horrified to learn that it may have been the same strange man who was in his pub just hours before.
Morrissey is on tremendous form as the caustic, self-congratulatory Harry – forever on hand to berate one of his patrons, call Shirley out for being “mopey”, or painstakingly outline the failings of his better known colleague, Albert Pierrepoint. The authority and humour with which Morrissey qualifies Harry’s celebrity status is beautifully underpinned by his growing awareness of his irrelevance. Obsessed by his public image, Harry tells a journalist that it’s his right to “keep his own counsel” about the abolition of hanging, but it takes little to persuade him to reveal how many people he’s sent to their deaths, or why in this regard, there should be an “asterix next to [Pierrepoint’s] name”. Such jabs tether Harry’s pride to his bitter core, further revealed during his interactions with Syd and Mooney, and laid bare in the final act.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of McDonagh’s script is the career making part of Peter Mooney, extraordinarily played by Johnny Flynn. Best known as a singer-songwriter, his Mooney does not possess an inch of that sweet, poetical soul. Rather he is a chipper sociopath with a talent for monologue. This is beautifully realised by Flynn’s dispassionate, yet oddly persuasive delivery, with a cadence reminiscent of In Bruges’ Harry Waters’. His sentences roll into each other in bamboozling fashion, and all the while he studies their effect. Though Mooney lets his guard down (and in dramatic fashion) in two key scenes, he is for the most part impressively chameleonic, projecting versions of himself to charm any audience. Whether it is buying a round for the pub’s regulars, or working himself into a fluster to convince Shirley of his ‘shyness’, his disinginuity is quite astonishing to behold. He is loathsome and unpredictable, which serves a useful dramatic function. McDonagh encourages us to reflect on our desire to exhibit justice on such a figure, when his behaviours and motives always remain at least partially obscured.
Though Morrissey and Flynn have their comic moments, much of the overt humour comes from the play’s excellent supporting cast. Andy Nyman’s weak-willed, frustrated Syd is a hilarious foil to Harry Wade, as his attempts to project a more likeable version of himself are undermined by incompetence. Sally Rogers’s Alice is an enjoyably harried presence, and her testy, but ultimately rather sweet relationship with Shirley enhances many blackly comic later scenes. In turn, Bronwyn James – performing in her first West End play – gives a nuanced performance. Her Shirley’s “shyness” is laid on hilariously thick, yet her frosty relationship with her Dad and her flattery at Mooney’s attentions hints at a rich, and rather sad inner life. The regulars at the bar (Tony Hirst, Ryan Pope, Craig Parkinson and Simon Rouse) are tremendously entertaining, with Simon Rouse’s deaf, and rather thoughtless Arthur the undoubted highlight of the bunch. Special mention should also be given to John Hodgkinson’s brilliantly foul mouthed cameo as Albert, who embellishes the play’s wonderful finale.
In turn, the set is quite wondrous. Anna Fleischle creates three unique spaces; the dismal green and beige prison cell that hosts the prologue – which rises into the ceiling upon its conclusion – the smoky, dimly lit pub that houses the bulk of the action, and the dingy, rain swept cafe of the second half’s opening scene. This bravura dialogue between Syd and Mooney takes place some metres above the stage, dislocating the audience from a grubby and uncomfortable discussion, yet also rendering it a curiosity. Matthew Dunster’s terrific direction is particularly noticeable here, with the power dynamics between the two men keenly evidenced by the respective senses of freedom each man conveys in that confined space. Without spoiling one of the play’s best scenes, never has the word “definitely” been used to such sublime comic effect.
Hangmen is a witty and thought provoking play, with a black undercurrent that is typical of much of McDonagh’s work. It is an excellent addition to his back catalogue, and I envisage many great actors performing their Harry Wades and Peter Mooneys on the West End stage for years to come.