Perfectly Executed Black Comedy About Hanging

Hangmen at Royal Court Theatre ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 34 months ago
Perfectly Executed Black Comedy About Hanging Hangmen at Royal Court Theatre 4
David Morrissey, Johnny Flynn and Ralph Ineson in Hangmen at the Royal Court Theatre. Photo credit: Simon Annand.

Martin McDonagh’s first new play in this country since 2003 does not disappoint. After concentrating mainly on his blossoming film-making career in recent years, with Hangmen he makes a triumphant return to the Royal Court where his stunning debut The Beauty Queen of Leenane was staged in 1996. Full of gallows humour and trademark narrative twists and turns, the play gives an alternative account of the swinging 60s set against the backdrop of the abolition of capital punishment for murder in this country exactly 50 years ago.

The opening short prison scene in 1963 sets the darkly comic tone, showing a man protesting his innocence as he’s about to be hung — "They could’ve at least sent Pierrepoint!" (referring to England’s most famous and prolific hangman), he jibes at fictional executioner Harry Wade, which inflames his professional jealousy no end. The action then moves on two years later to a pub in Oldham, Lancashire, where the now publican Wade holds court to a bunch of boozing regulars and a local reporter on the day that capital punishment has been abolished. But the arrival of a ‘vaguely menacing’, long-haired cockney called Mooney and former assistant hangman Syd threatens the cosy complacency as Wade’s past comes back to haunt him.

The shadow of miscarriages of justice such as Timothy Evans (wrongly executed for the murder of his wife and daughter, who were actually victims of serial killer John Christie) and other controversial cases like James Hanratty, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis hangs over the play. But McDonagh is not warning about the inadequacy of proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt so much as exploring the deeply ambivalent nature of people’s motivations where truth is always uncertain. Above all, Hangmen is a brilliantly entertaining work, featuring characteristically clever stagecraft and cracking dialogue, as well as plenty of suspense and near-the-knuckle jokes set in a culture of casual sexism, homophobia, racism and ableism, where foreigners are strange and the South and the North seem to be two different countries.

Matthew Dunster’s superb production keeps the energy of McDonagh’s script fizzing away. In an ingenious piece of stage design, Anna Fleischle’s contained set of a stark prison cell, with a spotlit quivering rope, moves upwards to reveal an authentically dingy, faded saloon bar that seems to be a relic from a bygone age where outdated attitudes still prevail.

David Morrissey gives a wonderfully dour, po-faced performance as the dicky bow-tied, moustachioed martinet Harry who lays down the law with brusque authority and cannot abide any questioning of his pompous prejudices. He is matched by Johnny Flynn’s edgily unpredictable cocky piss-taker Mooney with his disconcerting shifts of subject and bizarre references to Groucho Marx, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. The League of Gentlemen/Psychoville co-creator Reece Shearsmith is hilariously creepy and pathetic as the stuttering, unreliable Syd. And John Hodgkinson makes a powerful late impact as the intimidating, eccentric Pierrepoint ("Smell my hair") in a face-off with Harry of rival hangmen, in this perfectly executed black comedy that shows the influence of Pinter and Orton but could only have been written by McDonagh.

Hangmen is on at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS until 10 October. Tickets from £12-£35, Monday day seats £10. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 29 September 2015