Hangmen, staged in the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, presents Martin McDonagh’s first published play since 2010, and is a long-awaited return. The play portrays the reaction of England’s second-best hangman, on the day the practice was abolished in 1965.

Hangmen opens in a prison cell, two years preceding the main action, as Wade hangs a supposedly innocent man, David Hennessy (Josef Davies); from the outset, McDonagh’s trademark dark comedy is evident. It is literally gallows humour from the start, as a hanging is undertaken with hilarious barbs concerning grammar and a bedstead fizzing across the stage. Two years later, and Wade is running a pub in Oldham on the day hanging is abolished (originally for a trial period, which became permanent in 1969), when a local hack tries to persuade Wade to grant him an interview, while taking stick from the locals. As the anniversary of Hennessy’s hanging approaches, a sinister unknown southerner, Peter Mooney, who appears to know a surprising amount about Wade starts visiting the pub. Meanwhile, Wade’s old assistant Syd, who was angered at being fired by Wade, reappears after a number of years. When this coincides with Wade’s daughter Shirley’s disappearance, then things take a turn for the darker.

The performances in the play require a precise balance to deal with the dark themes and sharp comedy, and I’m pleased to say that across the board, the cast execute excellently. The ensemble, consisting of the pub regulars, from selectively deaf Arthur (Simon Rouse) to Detective Inspector Fry (Ralph Ineson), Syd and Wade’s rival hangman Pierrepoint, do not overplay their roles, but bring real atmosphere. Through great timing, they provide a lively, witty commentary on the action for the audience. Reece Shearsmith in particular, playing drippy Syd, has beautiful timing and has the audience in hysterics a number of times.

The protagonists are universally excellent. David Morrissey (as Wade) leads the production with great presence, and balances brilliantly Wade’s bullish, dominant nature with real vulnerability when Shirley disappears, and when confronted by Pierrepoint. His constant movement and verbal barbs help him control the stage and continuously engage the audience, as well as having some fantastically delivered put-downs in textbook McDonagh style. Opposite him, Johnny Flynn pitches his sinister Peter Mooney precisely and enjoyably. His quirky patter and seamless tangential monologues are delivered with flair, as the streams of consciousness show a man on the edge of madness but retaining sinister control. He also beautifully delivers a number of self-deprecating thoughts about how he appears “vaguely menacing” but is actually really nice, then perfectly timing a number of self-conscious stares and menacing pauses. Wade’s wife Alice, played by Sally Rogers, is portrayed with great versatility, holding court with presence amongst the regulars in the bar, showing distinct emotion when Shirley disappears, and then delivering some beautiful, sarcastic barbs at her husband.

The script is what you might expect from McDonagh, with some dark themes including capital punishment and revenge, but with a rich vein of sharp, witty humour. Despite the down-to-earth characters, each of them trades dialogue brimming with intelligence, and his precise timing allows the actors to create some great set pieces. There are also a number of small through-lines of narrative that gradually build to some fantastic climaxes, such as a throwaway comment by Wade about Pierrepoint’s hair smelling of death, which develops over the play, to a scene where Pierrepoint storms into the pub and demands that everyone smell his hair. While the tone is similar to much of McDonagh’s other work, it does not take away from the quality of the writing at all and the audience is totally engaged all the way through.

The staging complements the immersion of the audience in the characters’ lives, by producing a really detailed, naturalistic set. The pub, where most of the action takes place, a prison cell and a diner, are decked out precisely for the period and produce real atmosphere to go with the script. The costumes also effortlessly produce the period, with dickie bows, big jumpers and hats helping to ground the action in the period and complement a lot of the themes in the play.

The experience depends on your feelings towards McDonagh: if you haven’t enjoyed other works of his, then you may not enjoy this one, as it is similar in tone and structure. Yet if you don’t know his plays, or do and like them, then you need to try to see this performance. The characters have fantastic chemistry and the play allows them to bring flair and timing to the production. Overall, the witty dialogue and hilarious performances make it an engrossing, fast-paced, enjoyable watch.

Hangmen is playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 10 October. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre website.