‘Hangmen’ brings gallows humor to London stage

08 Dec, 2015 9:03 pm

LONDON – The latest play from Martin McDonagh, the British-Irish author best known for his dark film comedy “In Bruges”, gives a whole new meaning to the Swinging Sixties.

Set in the northern town of Oldham in 1965, the year Britain abolished capital punishment, “Hangmen” is a savagely funny look at professional killing and the story of one self-proclaimed “servant of the Crown” who wielded the rope.

Underpinning the piece is our knowledge, in hindsight, of serious miscarriages of justice from that era, a point McDonagh brings home with a stunning plot turn in which the worlds of state-sponsored execution and lynching collide.

Harry Wade, the fictional bow-tied hangman at the center of the play, carries out his last official hanging in 1963 but the case of the condemned man, who goes to his death protesting his innocence, comes back to haunt him.

Two years on, Wade has swapped the lever on the gallows trap-door for pulling pints in a nicotine-brown pub, where he holds court about his glorious career to a seedy bunch of regulars.

His bombastic style is challenged, however, by the arrival of young man called Mooney, whose long hair, London drawl and southern ways rile the locals. The newcomer describes himself as “vaguely menacing” and duly starts to make trouble, leaving the audience guessing whether he is a clown or violent avenger.

The writing is consistently sharp and both David Morrissey as the bullying Wade and Johnny Flynn as the enigmatic Mooney give pitch-perfect performances.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines as the dark subject matter clashes with the characters’ down-to-earth foibles, creating strong echoes of 1960s playwrights Joe Orton and Harold Pinter.

The play’s set also has a starring role, following a remarkable transition from an opening scene showing a neon-lit cell to Wade’s smoky pub.

McDonagh, a master of menace and violence, has recently devoted more of his time to film, following up the 2008 success of “In Bruges” with “Seven Psychopaths” in 2012.

“Hangmen” transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End of London this month after opening to rave reviews in September at the Royal Court, a long-time promoter of new drama. –Reuters

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