Hangmen, Royal Court Theatre


I thought of Mark Lawson while watching Hangmen. Mark Lawson, as he made very clear three years ago, is no fan of the scene change. And Hangmen has one of the most drawn-out, deliberate, metamorphic scene changes I’ve witnessed on stage. A big, bold, statement-making scene change.

Martin McDonagh’s new play opens in the dying days of the death penalty. Famed Lancashire hangman Harry and his assistant Syd are just doing another job, getting on with the nine to five. The world, though, is about to change. With the condemned man eventually dispatched, at the end of the first scene Anna Fleischle’s entire detailed prison cell set shudders upwards, slowly disappearing from sight. The hangman’s dangling noose, lit by a single shaft of light, is lifted away.

It’s a stunning transition and a symbolic shift from one age to another. When the lights come up on the Oldham pub run by Harry and his long-suffering wife Alice – just as impressive in its detail – it’s two years later and hanging has just been abolished. Around them, too, the signs of change are creeping in, even if their old-fashioned boozer is still clinging to the past. Rock’n’roll music is everywhere and Harry and Alice’s “mopey” daughter Shirley is a new breed of teenager. The social revolution is on its way.

Before it arrives, though, a spectre from Harry’s body-littered past (233 hangings, he unwisely brags to a local newspaper reporter) is about to return to haunt him and his family. Remember that hanging in the first scene? Well there’s a question mark over the hanged man’s guilt – a question mark that soon marches into Harry’s pub, along with a menacing stranger from the south. Just what is it that this intruder wants, and what has it got to do with the man who died protesting his innocence two years ago?

As expected from McDonagh, Hangmen is a masterclass in plotting, complete with a couple of twists that have the whole audience collectively, audibly gasping. It’s good old-fashioned narrative theatre, full of unexpected turns and vivid dialogue, and brilliantly done in Matthew Dunster’s carefully pitched production. It’s also dark as the pints of Guinness passed over Harry’s bar, full of cruel humour and simmering with the threat of violence. We all know what McDonagh is capable of by now; the grim and grisly never seems far away.

Much of the play’s sinister undertow comes in the form of Johnny Flynn’s Mooney, the peculiar, scruffy-haired stranger who saunters into Harry’s life and Shirley’s affections. David Morrissey is perfectly cast as the reluctantly retired hangman, all no-nonsense bluntness and blokey self-importance, as is the brilliant Reece Shearsmith as Harry’s stuttering and uncertain former assistant Syd. Yet somehow it’s Flynn who stands out, his shifting, swaggering sense of menace as hard to pin down as Mooney’s questionable intentions. Is he a psychopathic serial killer, or just a serial piss-taker?

McDonagh’s a bit of a piss-taker himself, gleefully pastiching British (and particularly Northern) culture of the 1960s and tricking his audience at every turn. And, of course, Hangmen is funny. Very funny. Even if the laughs – prompted by jokes as unapologetically (and sometimes problematically) offensive as you’d expect from McDonagh – sometimes leave the sour aftertaste of a bad pint. This is the unsavoury side of Britishness, suffused with casual racism and misogyny, whose habits and traditions might – like the death penalty itself – be better resigned to the past.

Fifty years on from the abolition of hanging in the UK, Hangmen is not the play to examine the ethical intricacies of the death penalty or the complicated ins and outs of the justice system. It would never want to be. Still, though, between the laughs it shows a nation on the brink of change, as well as the nastiness that can sometimes be wrapped up in nostalgia. The paraphernalia of Harry’s trade might be lifted away, but its ugly traces remain.

Photo: Simon Annand.

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