High expectations were raised for Martin (The Cripple of Innishmann and Beauty Queen of Leenane) McDonagh's latest work Hangmen (Royal Court Theatre), directed by Matthew Dunster, but sadly it proved a major disappointment.
The story, set in 1965, centres on the fictional character of Harry Wade, who is something of a local celebrity in his home town of Oldham, near Manchester. But what is the second best hangman in Britain to do on the day that hanging is abolished. Among the cub reporters and sycophant regulars who populate his pub, dying to hear his reaction to the news, a peculiar stranger lurks with a very different motive for his visit. No sooner has the interloper intruded on Harry's life that his own daughter goes missing, presumed dead.
McDonagh's first play in 10 years is an uneasy combination of thriller and black comedy – the sort of thing Joe Orton did so much better. Mind you it opens in truly chilling fashion in a condemned man's prison cell, a clock starts chiming eight, a noose is put around the man's neck and Harry Wade, in a suit and dicky-bow pulls a lever, the trap beneath the man's feet falls and the body drops below the floor level. The rope the moves slowly upwards and the set itself swiftly follows and we find ourselves in Harry's bar.
I have always maintained that the death penalty and its abolition is not a subject for laughter and so it proves here, with the often-coarse humour generally falling flat and the characters involved mainly stereotypes. In particular, the clash between the two executioners – Pierrepoint and Wade fails to generate much tension or humour.
The redeeming quality of this production, however, is a commanding central performance by David Morrissey who make Harry a flawed but very human individual, dogged determined and in a strange way engaging. Sally Roger as his wife, Bronwyn James as his daughter and Johnny Flynn as the sinister stranger lend convincing support.
Runs at the Royal Court Theatre until Saturday 10 2015
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