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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hangmen
Royal Court Theatre  Summer 2015; Wyndham's Theatre Winter 2015-2016

On the 1965 day that hanging was abolished in Britain a retired hangman, now a publican, serves his motley band of regulars. 

Talk turns to one of the last men he hanged, a woman-murderer who claimed innocence right up to the end. There's been an almost identical murder since then, and now a sinister stranger is chatting up the hangman's teenage daughter. 

The play is chilling, disturbing and hilariously funny. 

Playwright Martin McDonagh (The Lieutenant of Inishmaan, The Pillowman) is the Joe Orton of blood and guts, constantly pushing the boundaries of taste while being very comic and witty. 

Hangmen doesn't have anything to match The Lieutenant's onstage gorefest or Pillowman's catalogue of horrors. But there is some onstage violence, talk of more offstage, and an almost constant air of menace. 

And yet we laugh a lot. A lot. 

McDonagh takes us to that slightly embarrassing place in our souls where the miseries of others are entertaining, and gives us permission, at least for a couple of hours, to revel in the naughtily forbidden. 

It's not a spoiler to say that the teenager does go missing and the stranger does prove very twisted and sadistic and somebody is going to die before the end of the play. 

But at least as much of our attention will be taken by more immediate and less serious concerns, like the pub customer who can't help putting his foot in his mouth every time he speaks, or the deaf customer whose need to be retold everything anyone says creates jokes where we didn't see them the first time. 

Or the former assistant hangman with a macabre secret, or the publican's jealousy of the more famous hangman Albert Pierrepoint (who makes an appearance, to defend his professional honour). 

The serious and scary sequences and the broadly comic ones don't alternate, but are so skilfully blended – McDonagh's trademark – that the nervous laughter of worry and the open laughter of comedy become indistinguishable. 

Director Matthew Dunster navigates the play's treacherous waters with confident authority, knowing where all the laughs and chills are waiting and just how far over the line of being audacious and disturbing to take things. 

A very impressive and elaborate – almost distractingly clever – set by Anna Fleischle helps anchor the play in time and place, and there are strong performances all around.

Johnny Flynn as the creepy stranger has the most showy role, and clearly enjoys playing him at full throttle, though David Morrissey's coiled-spring intensity as the ex-hangman is a more complex and layered characterisation. 

Sally Rogers as the publican's wife, Andy Nyman as the resentful hangman's assistant and Craig Parkinson as a cop who knows when to be blind stand out in a solid supporting cast. 

Hangmen is not exactly traditional holiday season fare, unless you're a little twisted. But Martin McDonagh's genius lies in knowing that we are all a little twisted, or can be made so with just the slightest comic nudge.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Hangmen - Wyndham's  Theatre 2015 

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