Playwright Martin McDonagh is widely acclaimed for his film work, with both In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths cementing the London-Irish writer’s huge popular appeal. Hangmen represents his first return to writing for the stage in half a decade, and the high expectations this has created have been met and exceeded – Hangmen is a triumph. Its humour is as dark as a night on the Dales, but throughout McDonagh keeps his almost entirely dislikeable characters wildly entertaining. It’s appropriate that Reece Shearsmith is in the cast, as the play often feels like a particularly misanthropic episode of League of Gentleman.
Hangmen draws on a long-standing British tradition; wrenching grim laughs from the pursed lip misery, moral outrage and drab violence that permeates our tiny island. The play takes place in the days following the abolition of hanging, and the action unfurls in a pub, somewhere up North, run by Harry Wade- formerly the second best hangman in England. Harry is a bastard and a buffoon, played with chest-puffing bluster and quivering self-righteousness by the excellent David Morrissey. His pub is his castle, and Harry’s word is law. He holds forth to his punters, a sorry collection of brown-nosers, booze hounds and bent coppers, with the unwavering conviction of the idiot.
Suggestions that he ever might have hung an innocent man are treated with snorting contempt, and Harry’s only true concern is refuting the reputation of his nemesis, Britain’s supposed greatest hangman, Albert Pierrepoint – who just happens to own a pub in a neighbouring town. This cosy life of gruff moralising and bristling invocations of ‘common sense’ is upended by the appearance of the sinister Mooney (Johnny Flynn). From the South of England and of no provenance, Mooney is the classic disruptive stranger; he appears from nowhere and changes everything. Flynn’s performance is a revelation; a horrible, buttoned down concoction of snaky menace, predatory sexuality and unsettling charisma. He quickly turns his attentions to Harry’s daughter Shirley (played with a complex mix of shyness and humour by the promising Bronwyn James), leading her astray with potentially devastating consequences.
As Harry’s finely ordered world begins to unravel at Mooney’s scheming hands, the final act descends into bursts of violence that are rendered shocking by how very ordinary they are. At one high point of tension Mooney delivers a breathless, escalating monologue, a torrent of words and anger that flashes between furious gut punches and darts of sly wit, stunning the stage and audience alike. This is no nostalgia piece; Hangmen illuminates ‘60s Britain with a brutally revealing glare. This is a land where violence is ever present, from the violence of language, casual racism and sexism staining the air like stale fag smoke, to the constant threat of physical violence that is all too often delivered.
It’s not hyperbole to call Hangmen a triumph – it succeeds on every level, both as entertainment, comedy, and thought provoking meditation of the violence buried deep in British society. But should you need any more urging to go to watch the play, bear this in mind; the Daily Mail hate it. That bastion of kindness has given one of the few bad reviews to the play, describing it- with an irony so sweet I’m not entirely sure they’re not trolling us all- as “mean-spirited”, “poisonous” and full of attacks “on the weak.”
Hangmen, not merely a highly entertaining night out - also offensive to the Mail. Full marks all round.
Hangmen is booking at Wyndham's Theatre until March 5th 2016. Details here