After a sell-out stint at the Royal Court this autumn, Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen continues to delight West End audiences at the Wyndham’s Theatre with its illustrative set, punchy script and darkly humorous plot. Hangmen begins with a botched hanging in 1963, but no sooner has the trap dropped and the noose swung than we’re whisked forward to a pub in 1965, shortly after the death penalty has been abolished in England. Here we follow the story of ex-hangman Harry (David Morrissey), now displaced in society and no longer a “servant of the crown”, but whose 233 executions just two years previously were deemed by the law as a quick, clean and dignified way to dispose of a murderer – far more proper than using the guillotine, which is “messy and French”. McDonagh’s Hangmen pokes at the question: what happens when your job of honour becomes a frowned-upon act of historic barbarity? What does this do to your identity?
2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary since the abolition of the death penalty in England, and Hangmen acknowledges history through references to Hanratty – one of the last prisoners to be executed in the country – and through its fictional executioners who are named after Britain’s real post-war hangmen: Harry Allen, Albert Pierrepoint and Syd Dernley.
Hangmen is not nearly as harrowing as McDonagh’s 2003 play The Pillowman, and sits far more comfortably with the audience. The script is tight, playful and witty throughout: like puppets, we can’t help but erupt in punctual laughter at the frequent, well-timed gags, despite the dark undertone of the play. Told in dialogue that captures the Mancunian dialect perfectly, McDonagh’s writing is an example of great storytelling. Indeed, we’re so engulfed in the plot that when the infamous and frequently referenced Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson) finally makes his entrance halfway through the second half, we give him a hearty, familiar laugh just for walking through the pub door.
Anna Fleischle’s set design is impressive in its naturalism and seems sturdy in form despite its evident flexibility, which we see as the prison cell rises to reveal the pub underneath. Every detail of the smoky pub and 60s prison cell are in their dutiful place, whilst the rain-splattered diner windows and damp coat jackets reek of authenticity. Matthew Dunster’s direction is particularly impressive during the opening scene’s hanging. As Hennessy (Josef Davies) stands with a noose around his neck, the trapdoor gives way beneath his feet and he plummets suddenly below stage level, in a swift and perfectly executed manoeuvre (excuse the pun).
In a production fuelled with strong performances, it’s Johnny Flynn’s slack-jawed Peter Mooney that steals the show. Flynn commandeers his audience on stage and in the auditorium as he arrives, “vaguely menacing” and every bit the exotic southerner, intent on rattling cages in the Oldham pub. Bronwyn James gives a commendable performance too in her role as the mopey Shirley.
The question of what makes you worthy is returned to throughout the play. Also simmering close to the surface is the topic of miscarriages of justice, which are felt far more keenly by Harry once they’re closer to home. Despite the pub-goers making a toast to the abolition of the death penalty early on, Harry’s final comment to Syd – “I’ll miss it” – as the pair reflect upon their former duties, suggests it takes more than a change of law to change your beliefs. All that’s left for these ex-hangmen to do now is correct one another for saying “hung” instead of “hanged”.
Hangmen is playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 5 March 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Wyndham’s Theatre website. Photo Helen Maybanks.