Hangmen review – Martin McDonagh returns with a savagely black comedy

Royal Court, London
David Morrissey and Reece Shearsmith give pitch-perfect performances in the theatrical maverick’s first London premiere in 12 years

Martin McDonagh has lost none of his power to shock. After more than a decade since his last London premiere with The Pillowman (2003), he returns with a savagely black comedy that reminds us it is exactly 50 years since the end of hanging in England, Wales and Scotland. But the question his play poses is whether the professional need to kill, with its potential for injustice, can be abandoned overnight.

The bulk of the action, after a brief prologue showing a judicial execution, takes place in 1965 in an Oldham pub belonging to Harry Wade. As a former deputy to the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, Harry is a local celebrity who attracts a gang of barroom cronies, and who unwisely gives a newspaper interview bragging of his past prowess. But, when Harry’s daughter goes missing, he begins to suspect a brash young visitor from London, Mooney, may be involved.

It would be criminal to say more, but the play reveals all of McDonagh’s talent for eclectic playfulness. Mooney, who describes himself as “vaguely menacing”, is a cryptic piss-taker strongly reminiscent of Lenny in Pinter’s The Homecoming, which first appeared in 1965.

Mooney’s presence also introduces a whole string of metropolitan gibes which remind us of the 60s vogue for movies and novels set in the north of England.

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh
Ralph Ineson (Inspector Fry), Graeme Hawley (Bill), Johnny Flynn (Mooney), and Ryan Pope (Charlie). Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Above all, the play invokes a world where capital punishment camouflaged serious miscarriages of justice. Matthew Dunster’s superb production matches McDonagh’s mix of dark laughter and fearsome excitement, Anna Fleischle’s pub set has just the right smoky fug, and there are pitch-perfect performances from Johnny Flynn as the cocky intruder, David Morrissey as the arrogant ex-hangman, Reece Shearsmith as his creepy assistant and Bronwyn James as his shy daughter. It makes for a compelling evening that confirms McDonaghs’s prodigal, pluralist talent.

• At the Royal Court, London, until 10 October. Box office: 020-7565 5000.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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