A Macabre Masterpiece

ROBERT STEVENS reviews the West End transfer of The Royal Court’s ‘Hangmen’ at Wyndham’s Theatre.

Martin McDonagh will likely form the bulk of your children’s GCSE syllabus; his neatly structured plays are punctured with witty and incisive dialogue, filled with social commentary. In fact, you could even argue that McDonagh has established himself as the Harold Pinter of his generation. His darkly humorous script for ‘In Bruges’, and the Carter-esque play ‘The Pillowman’, set high expectations for ‘Hangmen’.

The prologue is set in 1963, and sees celebrity hangman Harry Wade (David Morrissey) execute a man pleading his innocence. There are jokes on both sides: “I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint”, says an indignant Wade in a brutish, northern accent. It sets the tone for a production full of macabre humour. Two years later, on the day that Harold Wilson’s government abolish capital punishment, we return to see Wade running a pub along with his crew of alcoholic droogs.

Photo credit: Alastair Muir
Photo credit: Alastair Muir

The play’s explosive opening far surpasses the expectations anticipated of McDonagh’s first return to theatre in over a decade. Yet a lot of the play’s momentum is lost by the second scene, forcing audiences to sit through, essentially, an episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ before the play regains any kind of dramatic traction. Wade’s pathetic post-hangman life does have some structural significance, though sometimes the exposition is a little ham-fisted and the impatience felt during the play’s lull remained with me for the rest of the first half.

There are, however, some pleasant distractions to keep an audience entertained when we aren’t too busy learning. An expensive set design impresses – certainly in the prologue’s hanging scene – and the lighting is also noticeably expert, with cracks of day often peeking through windows. The cast are superb, with Johnny Flynn stealing the show as out-of-towner Mooney.

Flynn’s eccentric portrayal of Mooney kick-starts the play back into action; the second half is far more interesting. Regrettably, I might have to concede that it probably benefits from the construction work that goes on in the play’s first half. As Mooney befriends the executioner’s daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James), the play slides into a chaos of betrayal and confusion, all expertly managed by an excellent script.

With ‘Hangmen’, McDonagh has made a memorable return to theatre. With great opening and closing acts, it’s almost acceptable to quietly forget the dark comedy’s more dragged out scenes.

‘Hangmen’ is playing at Wyndham’s Theatre until 5th March 2016. For more information and to book tickets visit http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/hangmen