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black comedy

Hangmen – A Black Comedy Driven By Misdirection


Harry (the excellent Mark Addy) is a no-nonsense, 25-year veteran hangman unacquainted with compassion. Being perpetually corrected as to the grammatical use of “hanged” and “hung” by timid assistant Syd (Reece Shearsmith) does nothing to further his patience. Whether or not the prisoner (Gilles Geary, a believably desperate Hennessy) is guilty is not Harry’s concern. (There are hints of injustice.) Yes, you see a hanging, but unlike many of McDonagh’s plays, death is bloodless and quick. What’s for dinner?

Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, John Horton, Johnny Flynn (seated), and Owen Campbell

Having gained community reputation as a man of importance, Harry retires, and with wife Alice (a solid Sally Rogers) and sullen, shy, patently naïve daughter Shirley (Gaby French – brava second act speech) runs the kind of British pub where locals get their social life. For Charlie (Bill Carter), Bill (Richard Hollis), Arthur (the always credible John Horton), and police commissioner Fry (David Lansbury), the place is a second home. Conversation is basic, low key, often wry (to us).

Two years later, England abolishes hanging. Clegg (Owen Campbell) a young reporter on the village newspaper, interviews the indiscreet Harry on what circumstantially turns out to be the anniversary of Hennessy’s death. That same day, a cocky, visiting Londoner named Mooney (Johnny Flynn) sets in motion inexorable events that will wreck status quo. The stranger couldn’t be more menacing if he carried an exposed weapon dripping blood. Slick amiability does nothing to mask innuendo. As a boy, Mooney undoubtedly enjoyed ripping the wings off flies…in front of friends.

Johnny Flynn and Gaby French

Skillful misdirection plays on cowardice, self-absorption, malevolence, vengeance, and innocence…which is to say, you won’t see the playwright’s practiced hand as it repeatedly disappears metaphoric coins or manifests rabbits. Your head may in fact swivel with surprise.

One of the most entertaining and well crafted of McDonagh’s plays, Hangmen is an ensemble piece. Director Matthew Dunster sees to it that every actor has distinctive personality affecting attitude and bearing. (Only the Inspector feels underdeveloped.) Aesthetic use of space, small business, and character focus keeps the full stage natural. Timing couldn’t be better for inducing tension and surprise. Black comedy is insidious.

Reece Shearsmith and Mark Addy

Reece Shearsmith (Syd) vibrates with infuriated frustration and fear. From his short appearance at the start of the piece to increasing participation, we experience what he feels.

Johnny Flynn (Mooney) makes one’s skin crawl. This outstanding performance is seamlessly, viscerally nasty. Each expression and pause, every ordinary gesture holds as much potential danger as thrillingly horrible outbursts.

Mark Addy and Sally Rogers

Sets are flat out terrific. Designer Anna Fleische creates a bleak, brilliantly scaled prison and well detailed pub that seem so substantial, transition (and its engineering) is a marvel. Having to unlock a double set of pub doors is splendidly utilized to dramatic effect as is the tightly spiraled back stairway. Thick, frosted glass and Queen Anne windows offer a feeling of tradition and longevity. Fleishe is also credited with Costumes which are pitch perfect. Watch for Alice’s change of clothing in anticipation of interviewing Mooney.

Joshua Carr’s Lighting Design is symbiotic. When the stage goes black at the end of each scene, we hear what seems like a metal prison door – redolent and unnerving. Sound Designer Ian Dickinson for Autograph also collaborates with Carr to conjure realistic storms.

Featuring Maxwell Caulfield as Albert, a rival pub owner and former hangman.

Photos by Ahron R. Foster
Opening: Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn

Atlantic Theater Company presents
The Royal Court Theatre production of
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Linda Gross Theater 
336 West 20th Street
Through March 25, 2018

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about reviewing theater on WAT-CAST.

Radiant Vermin – Don’t Ask About the Title, Just Go!


Dispensing with the fourth wall, Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson) and Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) tell us/enact the curious story of their dream house:

A struggling young couple reduced to living in “the crime capital of the universe,” Red Ocean Estate, Jill and Ollie are in love, about to have their first baby, and, as the British are wont to do, getting on with it despite circumstances.

One day, an unexpected letter arrives from the local council’s D.S.R.C.D.H = The Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes, offering a new house, no obvious strings attached. Ollie is convinced it’s a “pathetic telly show,” a joke. Jill insists they check it out.

Driving to the (map enclosed) location, the two discover a new, quite uninhabited development. Finding the door unlocked, they explore the house. Jill loves it. Miss Dee (Debra Baker), ostensibly an official from the Council, appears (out of the audience). Armed with a discomfiting amount of personal information on their lives, she says the couple was chosen in order to attract other, paying inhabitants to the neighborhood by renovating the house. Ollie, it seems, is handy. Jill has taste. The few seemingly harmless stipulations include maintaining discretion and making improvements.


Ollie feels it seems to good to be true… Jill is set on bettering their lives for the baby, however, so a contract is signed. They move in. Ollie tackles wiring and plumbing. That night, they hear sounds coming from the kitchen. Was the back door locked?! Ollie goes down to investigate carrying the only “weapon” he can find, a candlestick. (He describes and mimes every tense move on the way.) The floor is covered with ransacked food. A grey-bearded, probably homeless man comes at Ollie with a knife. In the ensuing scuffle, the vagrant falls, hits his head, and dies.

When, panicked, Ollie and Jill go back down to dispense with the body, it’s disappeared! Additionally, the kitchen has morphed into the Selfridge’s model Jill longed for. Herein lies the tale. We watch as the house is “revised” room by room, as the couple’s lives increasingly resemble a glossy magazine spread; as upscale neighbors move in and property values rise.

The truth, however, as it was proffered in the sixties, is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Our protagonists are in a quandary, both moral and material. They need our help. Don’t worry, there’s no actual audience participation.


Playwright Philip Ridley’s black comedy is timely, original, and skillfully produced. Even when you realize what’s going on, small surprises and manifest reactions make taking the trip a buoyant pleasure. Ridley’s ending is priceless.

Director David Mercatali straddles stylization (exaggerated, precise, sometimes incredibly rapid movement) and naturalism. The empty stage is well utilized with cogent mime. No point in analyzing. It works.

Debra Baker gives us a splendidly sinister, while outwardly proper Miss Dee, then morphs into a second character whose existence, supported by eminently sensitive, realistic portrayal, has us catching our collective breath.

Both Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey are warm and animated.  Required to flip from narration to participation and back, from quick turns as other characters (especially in a party scene that will make your head spin-the only section which would benefit from slight cutting), they are adept and winning. We feel both for and with them. The casting match is perfect.

Designer William Reynold’s all white stage leaves our imaginations to run wild, concocting what’s described. Ollie’s casual clothes are fine, but Jill’s dark tights and clodhoppers distract, looking wrong throughout.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Scarlett Alice Johnson, Debra Baker, Sean Michael Verey
Other photos Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey

Supporting Wall, Metal Rabbit Productions, and Soho Theatre presents
for Brits Off Broadway
Radiant Vermin by Philip Ridley
Directed by David Mercatali
59E59 Theater
59 East 59th Street
Through July 3, 2016