There's something wholly refreshing about this thoroughly original and darkly comic new play from Irish writer Martin McDonagh that breathes a sigh of relief into the West End, especially at this saccharine time of year. It has all the markings of a traditional well-made play, and it is no insult to suggest that this feels like a revival of a classic rather than an angsty piece of new writing.
Perhaps much of this is to do with the setting of the piece, which takes place primarily in 1965 on the day that death by hanging was abolished in the UK. Harry, the 'second best' Hangman in the country is something of a local celebrity amongst his tight circle of loyal customers, and remains philosophical about the abolition which has put an end to his 233-person hanging career. As he sells his story to the local newspaper, he becomes startled when an outsider challenges the status quo, and questions begin to emerge about a number of his previous victims.
What strikes you instantly is the atmosphere, and the way the whole mise-en-scène effortlessly culminates in a recognisable and relatable environment from which multiple characters can be developed successfully in the most efficient amount of time. With most of the action taking place in a gritty northern pub, you instantly connect to the setting with its soap opera connotations. Rather than belittle the drama, McDonagh uses this common knowledge to his advantage, and he is able to quickly build a wide cross section of supporting stock characters without overplaying his methods or mechanics. The careful development, and indeed delivery by the unanimously strong cast, creates a solid foundation for the darker side of the drama to sit on top of, which adds to the harrowing effect of the story.
Much of the comedy is created by the careful development of character that together support the world in which the story takes place. Authentic accents give each character a distinct idiolect that is finely balanced and never tips over into the ridiculous, allowing the moments of horror to feel sufficiently unstartling and dramatic. The play raises questions about not only the justice system through the abolition of hanging but also explores the macabre notoriety and fame attached with such an act.
By beginning the play in a prison cell with a chillingly realistic hanging, the thud of the trap door immediately changes the tone and gives the entire audience a solid point of reference that doesn't depend on age or context. There is a fantastic pace and distinct rhythm to the dialogue which shifts between longer monologues that are almost performed within the world of the play as the characters struggle to each say their piece, alongside quick witted exchanges and hilarious one liners that keep the sometimes static staging
It's a triumph of design with Anna Fleischle's impressive set utilising each area of the stage, as well as providing a striking set change at the top of the play as the prison ascends to reveal Harry's pub in Oldham.
The performances are electric and perfectly judged, which is testimony to director Matthew Dunster's shrewd ability to balance a busy stage of personalities and juggle our focus appropriately. There's careful moments of tenderness especially in the scenes between Johnny Flynn's oddball Mooney and Bronwyn James's impressionable Shirley, played with a dry dead-pan humour and appropriate levels of charm.
McDonagh's play delivers in every sense, and is without a doubt one of the strongest new plays I've seen this year. An instant modern classic.
"The subject matter is grim, yet Hangmen is consistently entertaining and, somehow amid the frantic action, gives you time to think about the big issues."
Ben Lawrence for The Telegraph
"McDonagh’s exquisite comic timing sparkles everywhere here, in each line and half-line, every beat and riposte. It’s writing of the highest order..."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
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