London Aisle View: Martin McDonagh Swings

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The cast of Martin McDonagh's Hangmen

Martin McDonagh -- the British/Irish author of such mordantly fine plays as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore -- has returned from a dozen-year absence in filmland with his new play, Hangmen. I won't necessarily opine that Hangmen is McDonagh's best; I imagine that if I saw a good production of Leenane or Inishmaan tomorrow, I might switch allegiance. But walking away from the Royal Court last night, I would gladly head back for another visit to Hangmen tomorrow.

Hangmen is about -- yes-- hangmen. Three of them. The play takes place in 1965, upon the abolition of capital punishment in Great Britain. Harry Wade (David Morrissey)--the second-most respected hangman in the northern England town of Oldham -- is being interviewed for a newspaper story, in the pub he runs with his wife Alice (Sally Rogers). This after a 1963 prison-cell prologue in which we see Harry hang a Londoner named Hennessy (Josef Davies) who insists that he is innocent- - and also protests that he does not rate the #1 hangman, Pierrepoint. ("Hung by a rubbish hangman," Hennessy moans, "that's so me.")

The silently stolid Harry -- goaded by the reporter's threat that he will get the story from Pierrepoint instead -- follows with a loquacious and boastful interview. In the course of doing so, he belittles his competitor's higher number of hangings -- 600, to Harry's 233- - claiming it should be asterisked because Pierrepoint was imported to Nuremberg for the War Crime trials, and those Nazis shouldn't rightly be toted. ("Hanging Germans en masse int a hard job, is it? They do what they're told, they follow orders.")

This being a McDonagh play, in comes a mysteriously menacing foreigner -- or Londoner, which to the barroom hangers-on in 1965 Oldham is as suspicious as being a foreigner. Mooney (Johnny Flynn), who seems to stroll over from an early Pinter play, is somehow mixed up with the executed prisoner Hennessy. Or maybe not; McDonagh leaves his characters in the dark, and why not leave the audience guessing as well? Mooney takes a shine -- or pretends to take a shine -- to Harry's mopey, overweight teenager Shirley (Bronwyn James)

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Johnny Flynn in Martin McDonagh's Hangmen

Also mixed up in the macabre fun is Harry's former assistant hangman, Syd (Reece Shearsmith). When Hennessy rues that "I'm getting hung by nincompoops," Syd helpfully corrects him: "you're getting hanged by nincompoops." It turns out that Syd is, for reasons that contribute to a couple of ribald discussions and a wonderful sight gag about car keys in the play's final moments, very much aware of the difference between "hanged" and "hung."

The play is rooted in actual events and people. Harry Wade is a combination of two Pierrepoint assistants, Harry Allen (1911-92) and Stephen Wade (1887-1956). Albert Pierrepoint (1905-92) left an autobiography, and the Hennessy hanging is based on the 1962 execution of James Hanratty. The playwright borrows these factual elements, gives them characteristically McDonagh-ish twists, and lavishes it all with roaringly macabre humor. In other hands this might work out questionably, but McDonagh hits what we foreigners -- across the sea in a land where capital punishment, in some states, is still legal- - would call a grand slam.

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David Morrissey in Martin McDonagh's Hangmen

The cast of twelve is uniformly strong, with the author giving everyone their individual moments. Morrissey is just right as the stolid, stubborn Harry, while Shearsmith contributes much of the comedy as the slight hangman's assistant. Flynn is properly unsettling as the stranger Mooney -- just what is he about, anyway? -- while the wallflower James seizes control of the proceedings in her final scene. Also moving things along is Rogers as Harry's long-suffering, gin-swilling wife.

Director Matthew Dunster has a perfect hand for McDonagh, letting the language shine through; and while the visual humor and sight gags are presumably included in the author's stage directions, Dunster executes them exceptionally well (especially in the action-filled final scene). Designer Anna Fleischle's three sets include a perfectly-executed 1960s pub; a couple of startling effects; and a dazzling coup de théâtre.

Consider Hangmen another stunning winner from MacDonagh and from the Royal Court. A West End transfer is already in the works, starting in December. New Yorkers will have to wait, and hopefully not too long; while the strong accents will need be toned down for clarity, my guess is that Hangmen will do every bit as good, stateside, as The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
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Hangmen, by Martin McDonagh, opened September 18 and runs through October 10, 2015 at the Royal Court. It reopens December 1 at Wyndham's Theatre