Phil had an uncle whose job as a prison governor meant he was called on to witness some of the last hangings in this country. He also kept the autobiography of Britain’s most ‘celebrated’ hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, on his bookcase and Phil is led to believe, visited the pub that Pierrepoint ran after retiring from execution.
Harry (David Morrissey) is a hangman (“The guillotine’s messy and French!”), Pierrepoint’s ex-assistant but without his fame, something that rankles with him somewhat, “I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint!” It’s 1963 and we’re in a prison cell, Harry’s here to perform a grisly duty on an understandably reluctant Hennessy (Josef Davies) with his assistant Syd (Reece Shearsmith), who seems more interested in how well hung their clients are. Or should that be well-hanged? Harry’s a stickler for grammar.
What follows is pure sick, slick, unadulterated, McDonagh at his blackest. To reveal much more would involve a considerable spoiler alert.
We’re transported to an Oldham pub on the day hanging is abolished in 1965. Harry, parelleling Pierrepoint, is now a landlord serving drinks to a handful of regulars, including Inspector Fry (Ralph Ineson, the best voice on a London stage since the one in Jane Eyre) and Bill (Graeme Hawley, who was, appropriately enough, Corrie serial killer John Stape) when a cocky young fellow, Mooney (Johnny Flynn), arrives from
an Orton play London, wants to take a room above the pub, chats up Harry’s daughter (a fabulously moody Bronwyn James) and brings with him an aid of smouldering menace and a more than a touch of Russell Brand.
Un-PC gags, dark doings and a chilling sequence of events follows. Matthew Dunster marshalls a continuing sense of unease which hangs in the air along with the fug of barroom smoke that drifts out from the stage and into the eyes. Morrissey and Shearsmith are splendidly imposing and creepy respectively. The latter performs the best sight gag on a London stage since, err, Mr Foote’s Other Leg only last week. But it’s Flynn’s charismatic turn that is the funniest, darkest and most ambiguous.
Anna Fleischle’s sets are richly detailed and convincingly in period. She’s obviously selected “drear” and “nicotine” from the colour chart’s list of options for the barroom.There’s a shockingly believable piece of stage trickery in the opening scene swiftly followed by something approaching a coup de théâtre.
This is McDonagh’s first new play in London since his extraordinary Pillowman in 2003, though in 2010 we did see A Behanding in Spokane on the Broadway with Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell and jet-lag.
Expect Hangmen to drop in at a West End theatre soon.