Review: Hangmen, Wyndham’s Theatre ‘Superb, Unbelievably Funny’

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It’s 1965, the height of the Swinging Sixties and, in Britain, the times they are a ‘changin. Rock ‘n’ roll is on the radio, the kids are growing their hair long and rebelling against their elders, and hanging has just been abolished. This is good news for everyone, it seems, except for Harry Wade (David Morrissey) – Britain’s second-best hangman.

We first see Harry in his pomp – the play starts with a prologue scene of a hanging of a condemned man. James Hennessey (Josef Davies), a fictional character (or is he based on James Hanratty, I wonder), has been condemned to die for an attack on a girl on a beach. Harry and his cohorts wade into the cell and drag James to the gallows, with James protesting his innocence to his last breath.

It’s a case that comes back to haunt Harry a few years later. James, it seems, was innocent and his case was key in the final push to abolition. Now, a journalist has turned up at Harry’s pub in Oldham wanting to know Harry’s feelings on hanging, its abolition – and whether he has any guilt for his role in the execution of an innocent man.

But if the journalist expected Harry to cower meekly and apologise, well, he’s picked the wrong man. Harry finally has his place in the sun and grabs it with both hands, holding forth on criminality, responsibility and his mighty role in keeping us all safe.

Hangmen

So, that saying about pride coming before a fall? Well, the repercussions of that case create a series of events that Harry could not have foreseen. But with implications for those closest to him, will Harry be able to face up to his culpability? And can he possibly keep the spiralling chaos under control?

Let’s say this, straight out the gate – this is an unbelievably funny play. This is almost literally ‘gallows humour’. It is incredibly quick-witted, wonderfully observant and brings a wicked humour to the darkest of moments. It’s not often you hear a theatre audience laugh out loud that often but, in that, Hangmen unequivocally delivers.

The dialogue is biting, sharp and the one-liners come thick and fast. Yet never at the expense of character. These characters are beautifully fleshed out – both in the writing and the performances. David Morrissey shines as Harry, as arrogant and boastful around his cohorts, as he is humbled and embarrassed when shone up by his betters.

Sally Rogers and Bronwyn James also impress as his long-suffering wife and daughter, respectively. As does Johnny Flynn as Mooney, the wide-boy from London, who appears out of the blue at Harry’s pub.

Hangmen

The pacing is also pitch-perfect. There are scenes of frantic energy, almost farce-level chaos. And these are interweaved almost effortlessly with languid scenes where characters discuss seemingly meaningless coincidences – that steady reveal of the characters true self slowly becoming apparent.

But the writing also makes a few lunges. There are a couple of areas where you think, hmmm, most writers are told categorically not to do that. And I suppose in this world of spoiler alerts, I should point out that the below may give some clues away so, you know

SPOLIER ALERT!

I say that as there may actually still be some people out there who want to see this play but haven’t yet, but I’m also gambling on the fact that there are a few out there who have, and so I wanted to discuss this.

The first point is in the reveal of a supporting character’s surprising motivation. Syd (Andy Nyman) was Harry’s assistant back when Harry was hanging for a living. We see them together, briefly, in the opening scene.

Only Syd then makes a surprising return later in the play, motivated to take revenge on Harry for a personal slight that we never witnessed. Syd is angry at Harry because he felt Harry humiliated him. He refers to a specific incident we never saw, we didn’t see Harry particularly belittle him in the opening hanging scene, so this sudden drive comes out of nowhere. All tell, no show.

Hangmen

And the ending itself is really ambiguous, and not necessarily in a clever way. All endings are in their beginnings, right? Well, the finale doesn’t shed light on anything that has gone before.

I never expected, or even wanted, this play to be wrapped up perfectly with a big red bow – this isn’t that type of play and Martin McDonagh isn’t that type of writer – but the open ending seemed to be a result of not knowing how to wrap this little story up, rather than the result of deliberate design.

Yet, after saying all that, I’d hate to give the impression that I didn’t like this play. I did, I really did. I think the challenge is that which comes with huge expectations. Awards, plaudits, sparkling word-of-mouth… Hangmen has had it all.

But maybe it is unfair to burden this play with that expectation as this is a superb play that I would love to see again. And again. But, you know, there were a few moments where I was thinking, hmmm, not sure about that.

Wyndham’s Theatre, London to March 5, 2016

Image Credits:

  1. Cast in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh directed by Matthew Dunster Credit Helen Maybanks
  2. Cast in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh directed by Matthew Dunster Credit Helen Maybanks
  3. Sally Rogers in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh by Martin McDonagh Directed by Matthew Dunster Credit Helen Maybanks
  4. Bronwyn James and Johnny Flynn in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh Directed by Matthew Dunster Credit Helen Maybanks

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