Royal Court Jerwood Theatre, Downstairs, London (***)
Appropriately for a writer whose stock in trade is the darkest of gallows humours, Martin McDonagh, playwright and screen-writer/director (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) has returned to the London stage after a decade’s absence with a play about hangmen.Now you wouldn’t expect McDonagh, a writer of fiendishly subversive wit to come up with anything approaching a balanced debate on the pros and cons either about capital punishment or the justice system per se. For that you’d have to go others like Clean Break, Caroline Bird’s surreal, ferocious satire, Chamberpiece (set in an execution chamber) or Debbie Tucker Green’s recent hang in this same theatre earlier this year. If you’re looking for laughter in the teeth of death then McDonagh is definitely your man, a writer (and now director) who excels in character study.
When McDonagh first started out, it was as if with his London-Irish roots he was gunning for – and succeeded in – taking pot shots at the rich treasure trove that is the Irish dramatic tradition. O’Casey and Synge especially were mercilessly mocked, with the unchecked sectarian violence and rural prejudice of the ‘70s and ‘80s as his major victims starting with The Beauty Queen of Leenane then A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West that became known as the Connemara trilogy.
Continuing with The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, his was a youthful and vicious revenge on, you might say, the pack of them.
But come a decade later, can it be `your man’ has mellowed?
Well, in a sense yes, though McDonagh still delights in the art of provocation with deeply un-pc jokes or references around disability and race. What he can still do, though, is build comic drama through characterisation and colloquial banter about seemingly nothing very much thank you.
Hangmen, unlike his earlier plays, is set in England, in the north of England, the home of our last National `executioner’, one Albert Pierrepoint but set in an Oldham pub run by another `executioner’, Harry (in real life both existed, Pierrepoint and Harry Allen who took over when Pierrepoint retired; both, it seems had a penchant for running pubs when their official duties came to an end).
And as in an Ortonesque comedy, Hangmen swivels on the very simple but lethal combination of personal failing – Harry is eaten up with jealousy over Pierrepoint’s reputation as the executioner with largest tally of executions to his name – and a possible serial murderer on his own doorstep.
Enter a local hack come to interview Harry on the day of the abolition of capital punishment, a shady stranger called Mooney, Syd, Harry’s sometime-sidekick and Pierrepoint himself plus a few drinking cronies, Harry’s wife and his daughter.
McDonagh keeps this concoction bubbling along for more than two hours with a series of Pinteresque-type tricks establishing an air of unsettling menace and absurdist juxtapositions. What is also captured by McDonagh, director Matthew Dunster and designer Anna Fleischle, too, is a real sense of the seediness of a 1960s northern drinking hole. The set positively reeks of alcohol-stained carpets, brown walls and lost afternoons.
If there is an anti-capital punishment or judicial system message buried within, it’s hard to detect it though underneath the banter possibly lies a serious point about miscarriages of justice. But McDonagh seems more intent on having fun – as most of his audience certainly do though I sometimes found it hard to catch the gag line, so hard were the audience laughing at the previous one! – at Harry and Pierrepoint’s pomposities, leading his audience up a blind alley and generally pointing two fingers up at the whole idea of fairness or justice.
Lovely performances all round from Johnny Flynn as the suspicious Mooney, Reece Shearsmith (Syd), Sally Rogers (as Harry’s wife, Alice), John Hodgkinson as Pierrepoint and best of all a rich harvest from David Morrissey as the bullying, bumptious, bow-tie wearing Harry.
Definitely one for those who like a ghoulish night out. And a laff or two, on the house, of course!
Hangmen is at London’s Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs to Oct 10, 2015
First published in Londongrip