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The Royal Court Theatre

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.

Escaped Alone – Just Below the Surface…


“I am terrified by this dark thing/That sleeps in me;/All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.”  Sylvia Plath

“I’m walking down a street and here’s a door in the fence and there are three women I’ve seen before, so I go in,” Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) tells us. She enters a backyard garden occupied by three middle aged, suburban peers on lawn chairs – Sally (Deborah Findlay), Lena (Kika Markham) and Vi (June Watson). Designer Miriam Butler manages to make it look familiar, yet slightly faux.

The friends know each other well. They finish one another’s sentences with pitch perfect timing, yet there’s no sense of intimacy. False starts and pauses are frequent. Each speaks as if she heard only a catch phrase of the other’s comment relating to her own life.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham, June Watson

Talk ranges amiably: relatives, cafes, shops, “the chicken nuggets was the iron mongers and then the health shop…”, birds “eagles are fascists…America has eagles…Well?…”, cooking, jobs, television characters… It all seems usual until we learn that Vi may have murdered her husband with a butcher knife “it just happened to be in my hand…”, Sally has a psychotic break when cats are mentioned, and Lena’s not only agoraphobic, but manic depressive. “I sat on the bed till lunchtime. The air was so thick…”

Every parenthesis of conversation is followed by a blackout, whereupon Mrs. Jarrett appears in a double frame of orange, neon light (Peter Mumford) matter-of-factly describing a dystopian future of such detailed horror one wonders it rose from the same pen. You’ll cringe. Back and forth we go.

Linda Bassett

Jarrett’s own roiled subconscious is expressed in the garden with a repetition of two livid words. Eventually she departs as if nothing unusual occurred.

My best guess as to intention is showing that which lies under the surface on human and inhuman scale, how little we see, how easily lines are crossed. It is, as I say, a guess. Playwright Caryl Churchill excels in the unexpected. She experiments with format, regularly addressing issues of both feminism and out-of-hand power. Imagination conjures both worlds with articulate skill.

The four actresses, direct from London’s Royal Court Theatre, couldn’t be better. Each imbues her character with subtle attributes. Timing is impeccable, naturalistic focus complete. Director James MacDonald helms a splendid example of a symbiotic company.

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Linda Bassett

The Royal Court Production of
Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill
Directed by James MacDonald
BAM Harvey Theater