"They could have at least sent me Pierrepoint!", shouts a condemned man as he is about to be hanged by his executioner Harry Wade (chillingly well played by David Morrissey), who replies, "I'm just as good as bloody Pierrepoint!". We are, of course, in the pitch-black comedy world of Martin McDonagh, who'll wrench laughs from the blackest and bleakest of situations; Hangmen is chokingly funny, in every sense.
And that laughter, as ever, often as not dries in your throat even before it (let alone the man who goes to his death protesting his innocence) let's out its last gasp. McDonagh is a master of mood and menace, and it courses through this play — his first new work to be premiered in the UK in a decade, though he's hardly been idle, with a Broadway play and feature films (including Seven Psychopaths, a title which sums up a lot of his work) instead.
He gets the audacious balance just right. There are chilling moments here, and thrilling ones, too: there's a master craftsman at work in a moment I won't spoil by describing but which has an awful inevitability even as you watch it. (And I don't mean the opening hanging, which is staged with grim, gruelling reality).
The Royal Court has really gone to town on the design here (the work of Anna Fleischle), with the death row cell and chamber rising dramatically into the theatre's upper reaches to reveal a completely realistic Oldham pub where, two years later, we find that hanging has been abolished and Harry Wade is now a publican, when a mysterious stranger — played by Johnny Flynn — arrives with an agenda of his own, related to Wade's former profession.
To say more would be to undermine the intricate plotting and churning sense of unease that follows. The uniformly superb cast, that also features Reece Shearsmith and Sally Rogers as the right-hand man and woman in Wade's life, bring complete conviction to it.
The Royal Court, not so long ago the home of hit after hit, has had a chequered time of it lately, but they have at last a real (and transferable) hit on their hands.
"It makes for a compelling evening that confirms McDonaghs’s prodigal, pluralist talent."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Matthew Dunster directs a first-rank cast of 12...and already has an almost sold-out hit on his hands. If this doesn’t get a West End transfer, it’ll be a major miscarriage of common sense."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph