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Hangmen

by on 10 June 2022

Pull a Pint and Tighten the Noose

Hangmen

by Martin McDonagh

The Questors Theatre at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 11th June

Review by Poppy Rose Jervis

Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh’s play Hangmen, his first for more than ten years, is dark, dangerous and deep, and The Questors Theatre has not shied from going for the jugular with this intense, hard-hitting production.

‘There is a bit more life in the air at the local Hangman’s family pub – and it’s not down to the quirky cronies at the bar.  Today, hanging has been abolished.  For good.

With Harry’s face plastered across the front pages, his status as second-best hangman and local celebrity continues to thrive.  But when a menacing young Londoner strolls up to the bar, something says he’s after more than a pint and a bag of peanuts…

Harry may have hung up the noose for good, but will he ever wash one man’s blood off his hands?’

Set in Lancashire in the 1960’s, with a truly harrowing opening, Hennessey, played by Will Newsome, is accused of murder, and is on his way from a chilling cell to the execution chamber.  Protesting his innocence, he is fighting against being dragged to his death.  Black humour kicks in from the start and there is an odd feel in the auditorium with the palpable fear of death, futile but desperate protests, and bizarre (in the circumstances) conversation.  Newsome achieves the perfect balance of fear and struggle, and with the whole being presided over by Harry Wade, hangman, priding himself on getting another execution under his hangman’s belt, we get our first glimpse into this extraordinary character, executioner and pub owner. 

A swing of the noose, a swish of the curtain, a swig of the beer and the death sentence is abolished.  The setting is now a fully working, fully stocked public house into which the stage has been transformed by designer, Alex Marker.  It is stunning and wholly realistic with extraordinary detail, if anything perhaps slightly too elaborate and not run down enough but ingenious, visually outstanding, superbly constructed and efficient with the back room, as it turns out, essential to the plot.  A rope, Harry’s personal trophy from previous years, is on display as if it is not just normal, but something that signifies a huge success and is of sentimental value, rather than something gruesome that has killed many.  The wardrobe excels, striking the mood and period of the setting.   Top marks and hats off to the crew for sourcing and placing of small props, dressing and furnishing and to whoever washes glasses, cleans tubes and refill barrels every night (albeit with something non-alcoholic!), and which now also brings to mind, the extraordinary volume of liquid the cast have to consume, and quite quickly, on stage every night … hold your breath, close your eyes, swig it back and think of good of England!

Yes, good old England indeed! …. and let’s see what McDonagh has to say about that.  Through the pub comes an assortment of not very pleasant Englishmen – the ‘outsider’ being from London, and the only females being Harry’s wife Alice, and fifteen year old daughter Shirley, both of whom work in the pub (and in Shirley’s case, not through choice).  They are all a social commentary.

McDonagh mentions Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom), and executioner names are based on real hangmen Harry Allen and Stephen Wade, and Albert Pierrepoint (also a publican).  The play is a cynical statement on the death sentence, the judiciary and the dangers of empowerment, especially that of the right to kill.

Pierrepoint’s true life multiple hangings of Nazi war criminals, some 450, are used in the text as childish one-upmanship in Harry’s bid to have executed the highest number of people, saying war criminals don’t count.  It raises the notion that capital punishment is linked to celebrity.  As well as being a reflection on the English law, systems and society, the script is a deep exploration of human nature, deceit, and innocence.  Innocence, not just in one being not guilty of a crime but in being naïve and chaste which we see in Shirley (Harry’s daughter).

McDonagh’s focus is on Harry Wade, played by John Dobson, well known locally and proud of the bullying figure he cuts, self-absorbed with macabre pride and obsessed with being, not just the last, but the last and the best, and the most famous, executioner.  He is unable to conceal his professional jealousy.  We witness unpleasant outbursts, triggered by anything that is not of immediate pleasure or benefit to him, or his constant self-glorification.  He is thoroughly unpleasant, as is his, wife, to their own daughter. 

Well written lines of course, need an excellent delivery and John Dobson, whose characterisation is superb, does not disappoint.  With a command of the role, he holds the audience throughout, wholly believable with instinctive acting and very much at home on the stage.

As the play develops, we witness corruption and a closing of ranks.  We soon see that empowerment can be like the first sip poured in Wade’s pub – the initial taste leads to something more, something unstoppable even, as a whole glass, then a whole bottle, follow.  Whether it’s lying, boasting, taking the law into your own hangman’s hands or sexism sounding casual enough as a joke, it shows ideas are embedded and systemic and increase.  It shows that being with those of similar ways gives a false justification for your own peccadillos and oddities – that bullying, prejudice, perversion and murder, can be, or are, in fact, okay or normal.  With loyalty amongst thieves and all that, this black bunch portray an unnerving relationship in their drinking hole, justifying and supporting one another.

To laugh or not to laugh, that is the question,

“They’ll always be women attacked, lad.  It’s just the nature of men, int it? In Lowestoft especially, there’s nowt else to do.  You soon get bored of miniature golf!”,

It is deeply uncomfortable – do we laugh comfortably or laugh uncomfortably or just feel plain uncomfortable?  Whichever, another sense of unease is created, a layer of uncertainty within us, maybe even tinged with guilt, which stays with us throughout the play.

Another line, or a few generating titters before (and even after) the significance sinks in, are those of Peter Mooney talking to the innocent and troubled Shirley, played by Ines Walker, about sand getting in swimming costumes.  Mooney is an unknown quantity, again odd, and an unpredictable stranger who comes to town and tries to rent a room in the pub. We are unsure if he gets a strange glee from making people think he is menacing, or if he really is menacing.  These lines are a more tangible and sinister repetition of the unpleasant seeds he has already planted and for which the implications could just be in the mind of the audience.  Words to come later are far more disturbing.

Emre Coze as Mooney is suitably unnerving.  With a barely concealed charged energy he makes us feel he is capable of deviant behaviour in an assured and deliberate way, and that he will be in control, even when he appears to be losing control.  He talks in an unusual manner in both what he says and how he says it, staring at the middle distance whilst speaking, or boldly as if in challenge, inducing nervous confusion while inviting argument but knowing one’s instincts will be not to argue with him.

We see him lose his temper and our instincts are right.  Mooney quickly ‘befriends’ Syd, former colleague of Harry, who has displayed unsavoury behaviour, which his cronies seem to accept, although used to bait him with by Harry.  Syd shows some sort of conscience later in the play but is a very weak and selfish man even when faced with a terrible urgency.  Anthony Curran, with great expression and a wonderfully confidant performance is convincing as Syd, his relationships with Mooney and Harry believable, in an overall excellent portrayal.

The surprisingly large cast of friends and ex-colleagues who frequent the pub, is very strong with a palpable energy.  Each character is well rounded.  All are relaxed and confident and accents, clarity and projection good and consistent.

Francis Lloyd, in a shortish appearance as executioner Pierrepoint, Wade’s competitor and thorn in the side, has natural stage presence, and his slightly odd hair, and his slightly odd air, and his slightly odd ‘smell my hair’ routine, elicits a welcome and real laugh, not of the ‘should I or shouldn’t I’ kind.  With expressionless face and toneless repetition, he oozes natural creepiness and the feeling that he can never be trusted.

As the play crescendos in its grisly climax, it may not be what some of the audience is expecting after listening to Mooney.  In putting two and two together, however, whether they made four or five, either outcome is still the result of the exploitation of a lonely, vulnerable and affection starved teenager who has been made to feel she is not beautiful.  What she feels at the time, and at fifteen years old, may not be how she views the situation later.

The feeling of unease created at the play’s beginning does not diminish but is pumped up as conversation and incidents take place and suspense and tension come alongside it.  This is, in part, because of the scripted subject matter, but is achieved through the directing and characterisation.  The directing lifts these characters off the page, nothing feels contrived, nothing feels unnatural.

Hangmen is a tight production in which underpinning sound and lighting could not be faulted, being particularly effective in the opening scene, but an understated, integral and significant element throughout.

Intriguing, fascinatingly gripping, superbly directed and a top rate cast – if The Questors were not already on the map, this production of Hangmen would have stamped it well and truly on.

Poppy Rose Jervis, June 2022

Photography by Evelina Plonyte

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