Interior, public house.
Welcome to the office of Harry Wade, Britain’s last (and second-most-famous) hangman. Or at least he was, until capital punishment was abolished in Britain, forcing Harry to exchange a length of rope for a yard of ale. Wade is allegedly based on the real life last hangman Harry Allen and his assistant Stephen Wade.
Hangmen is a dark, sometimes absurd comedy with a serious undercurrent. Writer Martin McDonagh (The Cripple Of Inishmaan, In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) has crafted a fine story around this morally charged topic. The narrative sees capital punishment by rule of law morphing into mob lynching behind closed doors, presumably trying to prod the viewer into asking themselves why the state-approved version is considered more acceptable.
The dialogue and production design are a fantastic reflection of the period. From the casual racist remarks to the shades-of-brown pub, the haze of cigarette smoke, the dirty low-fi guitar riffs between scenes and the ‘half a pint for half a man’ mentality with which most interactions are imbued.
Many of the comments and viewpoints portrayed are blunt and offensive, but they fit with the atmosphere of the play. These are Real Men, it’s the 60s, you’re a long way from London now (you Southern fairies). It’s interesting seeing this performed in the age of political correctness, to an audience who doesn’t know quite how to react – should I laugh at that?
The performance takes place in a grand space at the west end’s Wyndham theatre. Anna Fleischle’s set features a dynamic dumb-waiter type room, moving up and down, hosting scenes high above the audience. This interesting angle has quite an unsettling effect during the café scene (go and see it, you’ll know what I mean). The sound and lighting are both spot on – moody and in-keeping with the general vibe. The whole show features high levels of production design. The atmosphere feels solid, no nonsense, immovable – much like the protagonist Harry Wade.
Matthew Dunster’s direction is great, you don’t even think about it – the scenes simply flow. Despite the dumb-waiter sets are often static for long periods, but the narrative is prevented from feeling so by constant engaging dialogue, coupled with a lot of character movement on stage with a sprinkling of amusing visual gags. The show slips from serious to comedy and back again, verging on farcical at points.
Each character is well developed , often through minor references or insinuations. Each has their own ‘thing’. Fantastic acting all round – David Morrissey absolutely aces the bluffing, self-righteous man’s man Harry Wade, holding court in his northern boozer. Self-assured and firmly grounded – unlike his victims. There are points when you simply can’t help but feel for the man – watching Morrissey’s facade crumple as his character is verbally torn apart by THE most famous hangman – none other than Albert Pierrepoint. At one point Harry Wade echoes the real Pierrepoint, suggesting that he does not feel the death penalty works as a deterrant. Meanwhile Johnny Flynn is excellent as the ‘menacing’, babycham-toting, southerner-up-north Peter Mooney.
To summarise – a well executed piece of theatre, absolutely worth a watch.
- By Martin McDonagh
- Director: Matthew Dunster
- Producer: Robert Fox, Matthew Byam Shaw, Royal Court Theatre
- Cast includes: David Morrissey, Johnny Flynn, Bronwyn James, Craig Parkinson, Sally Rogers, Andy Nyman, Simon Rouse, Tony Hirst
- Wyndham's Theatre, London
- Until 5th March 2016
- Review by Oliver J Weinfeld
- 10 December 2015