Hands down this is the best new play of 2015. The end of hanging may not be an obvious source of humour but when has that ever stopped Martin McDonagh? Capital punishment remains an emotive topic and although the practice had long since been abandoned in Britain, it remains on the political agenda with some seeing it as the best deterrent against serious crime while others a gross violation of human rights. McDonagh’s wonderful new plan examines this debate by framing it around two interlinked crimes, one for which a man was hanged, and one two years after that punishment has ended, asking us whether we can ever be sure enough of someone’s guilt to kill them for it.
Harry (David Morrissey) and Syd (Reece Shearsmith) are hangmen and as the play opens we see them perform their grisly duty. A couple of years later Harry is now running a pub in Oldham with his wife Alice and has a number of regulars propping up the bar, including a police Inspector, all of whom are attracted to the pub by Harry’s former profession and tales of his rivalry with leading hangman Pierrepoint. On the second anniversary of a famous hanging, not only does a reporter appear to interview Harry, but a mysterious and menacing stranger from London comes into the pub. Suddenly Harry’s past begins to catch-up with him and threatens the new life he has built.
Dignity is a major theme in this play and it is fascinating then to open with a very undignified death. Often in TV and films where someone is to be executed, we see them nobly accepting what must be done and quietly acquiescing. Not here, Hangmen opens with prisoner Hennessy going to his death kicking and screaming – he protests his innocence over and over again, clings to the bedstead and fights off his restrainers. It’s a full on opener and although laced with dark humour serves as a useful frame for the production, reminding us that ultimately life is all there is and we should be pretty sure before we take it away.
Anna Fleischle’s set design is magnificent, first the brick prison cell with strip lighting looks suitable grim and imposing, and the incorporation of the hangman’s noose into that room is clever way to keep the action moving. Later in the play Pierrepoint talks about maintaining the dignity of their work by keeping it behind the prison walls, so this nicely reinforces that sentiment. Rather spectacularly, the whole room then lifts into the air revealing the brilliant recreation of a smoky Oldham pub in the late 1960s, complete with functioning beer taps, wall lights and dubious wallpaper that all looks well lived in. Later still a large section of the top wall slides down to reveal the interior of a greasy builder’s café by the seaside. It’s this inventiveness in staging that makes you love the Royal Court and ensures that all levels of the theatre have an excellent view.
This was only the third preview and press night is on Friday but this is already absolutely brilliant so people seeing it later in the too short run are in for a treat as it matures. David Morrissey perfectly captures the essence of man who likes to be in charge, the small sense of power that being a hangman granted him has transferred to dominion over his pub and the eager band of followers who ‘hang’ on his every word. Morrissey brings a really interesting mix of conviction, small-mindedness and arrogance to Harry – very much a man of his time – who took more pleasure in his former occupation than he’d like to admit. Later in the play as things start to unravel we see these tensions violently bubble over and in an interesting scene Harry is humbled by his rival.
It’s a stellar cast but one of the best performances comes from the more unknown Johnny Flynn as the menacing stranger Mooney, whose connection to events twists and turns before the audience. Flynn is incredibly charismatic, charming even with a consistent hint not just of latent danger but also of derangement. Mooney becomes the cypher for McDonagh’s argument on capital punishment so Flynn’s performance takes on added value in intriguing the audience while keeping us guessing about his true nature. Reece Shearsmith as hangman’s assistant Syd gives another fantastic dramatic comedy performance mixing Syd’s bumbling incompetence with a darker element that gives the impression that he’s always in over his head. Shearsmith also nails some fantastic one-liners and reaction shots that have the audience in stitches.
Harry’s world also includes a connected sub-plot with his beleaguered no-nonsense wife, played magnificently by Sally Rogers, as the strong landlady in a world of men, and their ‘mopey’ daughter Shirley played by Bronwyn James giving a fabulous stage debut as the lonely teenager dealing with her seemingly uncaring parents. Ralph Ineson is the gruff Inspector Fry who has his ‘spot’ at the bar but never seems to be at work, supporting Harry to intimidate the customers and suggesting a backstory of corruption. Pub regulars Bill (Graeme Hawley), Arthur (Simon Rouse) and Charlie (Ryan Pope) provide a lot of the humour as they become embroiled in events but still imply they’ll be back in the pub tomorrow because that’s just what they do.
McDonagh’s new play is an absolutely treat from start to finish, and there’s not a word wasted. It’s packed with his typically ‘gallows’ humour and fantastic lines which are drawn from neat observation of northern working class life and from the ridiculous situation in which these people find themselves. Not only will you be laughing all the way through but McDonagh has created a set of characters that, despite the ludicrousness of the situation, you entirely believe in, making the dramatic moments wholly credible. Amazing also that this fabulous cast had only two performances under its belt and was still completely brilliant – no doubt the critics will agree come Friday and with such a short run let’s hope for a West End transfer. It’s so rare to find a play that can keep you giggling while having you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen, and the skill of McDonagh’s writing is to get you thinking about capital punishment without even realising it. The message is provoking but clear, if you want to have a criminal justice system that ends in death, can you ever really be sure enough of someone’s guilt to hang them?
Hangmen is at the Royal Court until 10 October. Tickets are sold out but check the website for day seats and returns.