Playwright Martin McDonagh returns to the London stage for the first time since 2003 with this extremely black comedy that transfers to Wyndham’s Theatre after a sell-out run at the Royal Court and proves that it has been well worth the wait.
Set in 1965 on the day that hanging is to be abolished in the UK, it stars David Morrissey as Harry Wade, officially the last hangman in Britain, who now runs a pub in Oldham frequented by a group of oddball regulars who revel in the landlord’s notoriety — as does Wade himself despite his pledge never to talk about his work as a “public servant”.
But Wade is a bitter and belligerent man, who still holds resentments about not being remembered as well as Albert Pierrepoint, officially the country’s number one executioner, who became famous for his dispatching of Nazi war criminals following the Nuremberg war trials.
Wade’s past comes back to haunt him with the arrival of two men: a reporter chasing a quote about the end of the death penalty, while at the same time resurrecting doubts over the validity of Harry’s last execution — that of a convicted murderer who went to the gallows protesting his innocence — and a sinister young man from London who clearly knows more about this last case and about Harry himself.
This is deliciously dark piece that revels in the macabre subject matter and is full of stinging and genuinely hilarious one-liners and brilliantly constructed plot twists. And it’s blessed with terrific performances from a top-notch ensemble cast. Morrissey is superb as the bullying, foul-mouthed Harry whose behaviour becomes more extreme as his world unravels. Fine support comes from Andy Nyman as his put upon former assistant Syd — replacing Reece Shearsmith from the Royal Court run — and Sally Rogers and Bronwyn James as Wade’s wife and daughter respectively. But the most compelling turn is that of Johnny Flynn as Mooney, the sinister and cocksure Londoner whose cheeky chappie demeanour barely conceals an air of chilling menace.
There are shades of Pinter here, particularly in the character of Mooney, but Hangmen is far from being derivative. This is a brilliantly written and performed play that is one of the best things we’ve seen in London this year.
Reviewed by Tony Peters
Photos: Helen Maybanks
Hangmen is playing at the Wyndhams Theatre until 5 March 2016. Click here for tickets