It’s the mid 1960s. Martin McDonagh’s excellent play begins with a vastly sanitized hanging. The hysterically protesting accused, Hennessy (Robert Goulding), drops through a trap door so fast it frankly escapes even wince effect. Surely a harness could’ve created the throes of death important to our understanding of context.
Depiction is, however, in keeping with the attitude of Harry (David Threlfall, neither pompous nor gruff enough), the number two hangman (presumably in the country): “If you’d just try to relax, you could’ve been dead by now,” he chides the prisoner, impatient to have his own dinner. It doesn’t help that Harry’s assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) voices aloud that based on lack of evidence, he thinks the young man innocent. His boss makes fun of Syd’s stutter and will eventually, ostensibly for other reasons, get him fired.
Alfie Allen (Mooney), Gaby French (Shirley)
Those of you interested should read a not prurient account of the last hanging – at Bristol Prison – by Robert Douglas in The Guardian. Present at the time, Douglas quotes one of the guards as saying he wasn’t looking forward to it. “What the hell are we going to find to talk about?” another replies, sounding like someone out of a McDonagh script. From this article I learn that the number one hangman was Albert Pierrepoint, a character portrayed here (John Hodgkinson) and that Pierrepoint was responsible for countless German hangings after Nuremberg, a fact the playwright also incorporates in Harry’s keeping score.
A 25 year veteran, Harry retires and marries Alice (solid performance by Tracie Bennett), a widow with a country pub and a sullen, shy daughter named Shirley (Gaby French) in whom he’s perpetually disappointed. The establishment subsists on a group of genial alcoholics who patronize it every day: Old Arthur (the always excellent John Horton); Charlie (Ryan Pope); Bill (Richard Hollis); and, Inspector Fry (Jeremy Crutchley, who has opportunity to create individuality, but doesn’t).
David Threlfall (Henry), Andy Nyman (Syd), Richard Hollis (Bill), John Horton (Arthur), Ryan Pope (Charlie)
The Labour Party in England has passed The Murder Act = abolition of all hanging and of the death penalty for those convicted of murder, thus eliminating a law on the books since the 17th century. On the anniversary of Hennessy’s death, local reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell) is present to interview Harry who protests, but opens up resulting in a large, bragging rights type article.
Into their midst comes London stranger Mooney (Alfie Allen) whose smooth, cocky manners and obtuse references (Nietzsche and Kierkegaard) exude foreboding. Within minutes he’s provoking poor Shirley by bringing up the mental incarceration of her friend – something he overheard and which the others are trying to hide to protect her. Mooney asks about renting a room, then flirts with the 15 year-old girl in sheer spider/fly fashion.
A surprise visit by Syd, whom Harry still denigrates, adds further implications to Mooney’s being dangerous. Naïve Shirley falls for the outsider’s charms. Inexorable, unpredictable events follow. Timing is surreptitiously a clue. Just when you think you have some of this figured out…One of the most entertaining of McDonagh’s plays, the insidious piece is both thriller and black comedy.
Tracie Bennett (Alice), Gaby French (Shirley)
Director Matthew Dunster, who also helmed the 2018 version at Linda Gross Theatre, is masterful with character definition and timing. Mooney’s abrupt, angry, outbursts and utter stillness both curdle blood. Shirley’s tremulous fear/curiosity is palpable. Small stage business like Harry’s putting a coaster under the stranger’s pint is telling. Facial expressions are as effective as double-takes without being obvious. Depiction of violence (excluding the initial scene) is superb and discreet.
Andy Nyman’s portrayal of Syd is a master class in comedy that never takes the slippery slope to farce.
As Shirley, Gaby French once again subtly inhabits a girl looking desperately for footing. Tension is visceral.
Though an ensemble piece, one can’t help but acknowledge the axis on which Hangmen turns, a terrific performance by Alfie Allen as Mooney. Without raising an eyebrow, the actor makes one shudder. What must’ve looked like innocent dialogue on a page reeks of jeopardy. As Mooney, he emanates belief in his invulnerability. You’ll recognize the persona from contemporary politicians and athletes who feel they’re beyond the law.
(Owen Campbell, Gaby French, John Horton, Andy Nyman, and David Threlfall were all in the earlier production.)
Scenic and Costume Designer Anna Fleischle, who did the same for the earlier version, offers a pub with walk-in reality. Employing impressive hydraulics, she also creates a claustrophobic prison cell and village café. While methods are impressive, the latter scene would’ve felt more immediate were it grounded. Costumes are exactly right.
Sound Designer Ian Dickinson for Autograph overplays his hand with deafening noise and/or loud music between vignettes which disturbs in the wrong way.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Jeremy Crutchley (Inspector), Richard Hollis (Bill), David Threlfall (Harry), Tracie Bennett (Alice), Ryan Pope (Charlie), John Horton (Arthur), Owen Campbell (Clegg)
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster
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