Hangmen at The Royal Court
Could this be the best new Comedy for 2015? Well, it gets my vote. Martin McDonagh has written some cracking plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan to name but two, and Hangmen is no exception. He is a master of black comedy and there isn’t a speech in his latest offering that isn’t laugh out loud funny. Add masses of dramatic tension and you have the recipe for an engrossing tale.
The title and opening scene of a bleakly tiled prison cell with a noose gently swaying in one corner, are, at first sight, not the most auspicious of starts for a comedy. But the laughs soon come thick and fast and the playwright even provides humour, albeit the painful and uncomfortable sort, immediately after the hangman pulls the lever and the prisoner drops down through the stage floor. The prisoner in question is called James Hennessy (Josef Davies in his professional stage debut), probably based on James Hanratty, and he is protesting his innocence right up to his shocking demise.
Full marks, too, to Director Matthew Dunster and Designer Anna Fleischle for the magnificent way the scene then changes and we’re two years in the future. Slowly but surely, the cell rises, eventually revealing a nicotine stained, dingy northern pub complete with landlord and an unintentionally hilarious crew of regulars. It immediately becomes apparent that the landlord is Harry Wade (David Morrissey) the still be-suited hangman from Scene One. Now lording it over his wife, “mopey” teenage daughter and Lancashire customers, rather than his work colleagues, Wade is bemoaning the fact that this is the day that hanging is abolished. Ever the show-off, it is only when a journalist (James Dryden) is keen to get his thoughts on this momentous occasion ahead of those of his arch rival and number one, hangman, Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson) that he decides that maybe it’s not such a bad day after all.
Wade may have a menacing air but it is the south London stranger, Mooney (Johnny Flynn) who is the more sinister. Starting off a bit of a cocky, happy go lucky cockney geezer, with a pretentious manner, there is obviously more to him than the mocking hale fellow well met. Good looking he may be, especially when compared to the pub’s motley regulars, but he is out to cause trouble and the pub’s inhabitants soon become uneasy in the presence of this interloper from down south It is only Wade’s shy and insecure daughter Alice (Sally Rogers) who is so astounded and flattered that this handsome stranger is paying her attention that she fails to notice anything untoward.
It’s not for me to reveal the various plot twists and revelations but, suffice it to say that the arrival of yet another non-pub regular is a catalyst for what eventually happens. Syd (Reece Shearsmith) Wade’s former assistant, with a slightly prurient interest in “private” matters, has a few old scores to settle. The trouble is that teaming up with Mooney isn’t necessarily the right way to go about it.
I cannot fault any performance, as this is the perfect ensemble piece where each performer enhances the other. Johnny Flynn plays Mooney with just the right amount of creepiness to hint at something darker behind his wise cracking demeanor. And his first flash of anger comes so out of the blue that it took me completely by surprise. We’re not used to seeing David Morrissey as a loud nasty bastard, but he brilliantly capture’s Wade’s towering, bullying presence, whist hinting at a man who isn’t totally without feeling. Reece Shearsmith is the perfect go to actor for an outsider with a nervous disposition, so is spot on in the role of Syd, the unworldly loner who gets completely out of his depth. Also worth a mention are Ryan Pope as the less than bright Charlie who repeats conversations to his deaf mate, Arthur, played by Simon Rouse who, in turn always gets the wrong end of the stick. Charlie tells him “Inspector says, How old are ya, twelve? Harry says, Five more like!” to which Arthur replies “Ha, ha, younger I get it”.
The great thing about Hangmen is that it’s being transferred to Wyndhams Theatre in the West End in December. Thank you Playful Productions, Robert Fox & The Royal Court because it means I’ll be able to see this great production a second time.