Tag Archives: Hangmen

Review of the Year and What to See in 2016

2015 has been a golden year for London culture combining top-quality theatre with some of Britain’s leading actors, some game-changing exhibitions and probably the best London Film Festival so far. Coming up with at least 52 review posts seemed easy with so many incredible opportunities on offer and with current announcements it’s hard to see how 2016 is going to compete.  The big news this time last year was the impending arrival of what I termed ‘the big five’ to the London stage as James McAvoy, Mark Strong, Ralph Fiennes, Damien Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch were all set to appear. The year opened with a deliciously dark production of The Ruling Class with McAvoy in fine fettle as the serenely insane Lord of the manor which saw him unicycling in his underwear and attached to a crucifix. It’s a performance that received a lot of awards attention – not just for the underwear – recently winning an Evening Standard Award as well as nominations for the 2016 What’s On Stage Awards but lost the Olivier to Mark Strong.

Next up the West End transfer of A View from the Bridge led by Mark Strong confirmed its place as the best production of recent years earning a clutch of awards before transferring to Broadway in the autumn to even more acclaim. Next came Ralph Fiennes in the National’s superb revival of Man and Superman that took a more modern approach to a classic play, and with Fiennes on stage for more than 3 hours award nominations seem likely. The National, on balance, had an excellent year under new Director Rufus Norris, staging wonderfully fresh productions of The Beaux’ Stratagem, Three Days in the Country and Husbands and Sons, but the less said about A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire the better, undoubtedly the worst and most tedious thing I saw this year.

In April Damien Lewis returned to the West End as the dangerously charming lead in a thoroughly enjoyable revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, happily bringing Jon Goodman and Tom Sturridge with him, and the ‘big five’ concluded with the probably the most hyped Hamlet of all time starring Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican. Selling out a year in advance, his performance was sadly overshadowed by there being more drama off-stage (about not signing autographs, cheeky early reviews and audience filming) that on and sadly the whole thing deflated by the time we got to see what was at best an average show. Good interpretation by Cumberbatch but drowned in a needlessly cavernous stage – pity.

But for all the excitement these star actors produced some of the biggest treats were unexpected hits including the Royal Court’s transfer of The Nether – a brilliant and challenging production – as well as the superb Hangmen which is undoubtedly the best new play of 2015 which you can now see at the Wyndhams until mid-February. Other unexpected gems were The Globe’s production of The Broken Heart, the Old Vic’s High Society and the Donmar’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses with commanding performances from Dominic West and Janet McTeer which also runs till February. Finally Kenneth Branagh delighted us by forming a theatre company and bringing two of five plays to the West End for a 10 month season at the Garrick, opening the delightfully staged Harlequinade and the utterly beautiful The Winter’s Tale with Judi Dench.

Branagh features heavily then in the 2016 shows to see with expectation now running high for his versions of Romeo and Juliet with Cinderella stars Lily James and Richard Madden, The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and an Olivier-esque role as The Entertainer in Osborne’s classic.  From what we’ve seen so far, these are bound to be delightful so booking now is advisable. Ralph Fiennes is also back in The Master Builder at the Old Vic which his performance is sure to raise, especially as recent offerings Future Conditional and the inexplicable The Hairy Ape have been a let-down (despite critical support). David Tennant is reprising his magnificent performance as Richard II at the Barbican as part of the RSC’s History play cycle early in the year which is another chance to see one of the best productions of recent times. Otherwise 2016 so far will be dominated by the Harry Potter stage show, announced with Jamie Parker as the lead after his show stealing performance in High Society, and several musicals including a West End Transfer for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and the launch of Mowtown the Musical. Maybe not as inspiring yet as the start of 2015 was but undoubtedly more announcements to come.

Over in the exhibition sector 2015 marked a new raft of new approaches. Leading the pack was the V&A’s game-changer Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty which stunned everyone with its dynamic approach to displaying beautiful fashion, necessitating 24 hour opening towards the end to meet the need. Smaller galleries also began to make their mark particularly the wonderful House of Illustration near King’s Cross that staged Ladybird by Design and E H Shepard: An Illustrator’s War taking a new and intelligent approach to familiar topics, so look out for the opening of their dedicate Quentin Blake gallery in 2016 and show about female comic book artists. Forensics and crime fascinated us first at the Wellcome’s utterly brilliant Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, shortly followed by the Museum of London’s The Crime Museum Uncovered which runs till March. Finally Somerset House struck gold with its fantastic retrospective The Jam: About the Young Idea which took a fan-friendly approach to examine their glory years.

Sticking with the music theme in 2016, the British Library will profile the history of Punk at a new exhibition combining its document and sound archive which promises to be quite innovative, while it also host its first major show dedicated to Shakespeare looking at the interpretation and influence of his work in 10 key performances to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death. They also have a free show looking at the image of Alice in Wonderland on display right now (review to follow next week).  The V&A have a big show about Boticelli while the National Portrait Gallery take up the fashion mantle with an exhibition of Vogue images which bodes well. The Royal Academy brings several classics together including Monet and Matisse to examine the evolution of the garden in painting, while the Barbican gets us thinking about being British in a show using the perspective of international photographers on our great nation.

Finally the London Film Festival showcased some of the best films of the year with some glitzy premiere opportunities. Opening with the excellent Suffragette, there was also Black Mass a less glamorised gangster film than we’ve seen in years attended by Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch, Carol attended by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (although it wasn’t to my taste), the rather strange High Rise with Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller, and best of all the closing night gala, the brilliant Steve Jobs attended by Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender – my ultimate 2015 highlight. But outside the festival, with Spectre letting me down somewhat, Fassbender also wowed in my film of the year – Macbeth, a gripping, glorious and breath-taking movie that a gave fresh interpretation while perfectly relaying the psychology of the play, film perfection in fact. Expect all of these films to end up walking away with plenty of awards in the next few months.

So there you have it, as we say goodbye to a glorious year for culture we have high hopes for 2016. Whether it can top the plethora of great opportunities we’re leaving behind remains to be seen, so let’s find out…

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Hangmen – Royal Court

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.

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