Hangmen: what January blues?

Showing at the Wyndhams theatre until 5th March 2016

I came to this play with high expectations. Hangmen transferred to the Wyndhams following a sell out run at the Royal Court Theatre with a 5 starry trail of praise: “drop-dead hilarious” according to The Independent, whilst The Daily Telegraph hailed it as “the most line-by-line funny show London has seen in years”.  It didn’t disappoint.

Hangmen is written by Olivier and Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh (also writer and director of In Bruges with Ralph Fiennes).  We join Harry Wade (David Morrissey) and his assistant in his final day at work – and immediately experience the gripping combination of hilarity and dramatic tension that defines the play throughout. Hanging was abolished in the UK in, unbelievably, 1965. Although the prison stage set quickly disappears from our view, slowly rising to be replaced by the pub Harry owns in Oldham, it is clear Harry’s previous profession is very much hanging over the family.  It seems hanging was a competitive trade like any other and we see Harry keen to outshine rival Pierrepoint in an interview with the Oldham Gazette.

Hangmen truly connects with its audience and from the first quips the chuckling dim rows make their presence felt. The flawlessly delivered comic lines reach out and demand a reaction from you. McDonagh takes a subject matter that could easily be tragedy, real or imagined, and somehow makes it funny, summoning from me at least a slightly bewildering mix of mirth, concern, and complete complicity as events unfold. Personally the feeling of being right there in the pub was pleasantly added to by the Northern accents and place names. Hearing Formby mentioned on the West End (particularly when in sinister, humorous connection to a garage and a family-sized box of Weetabix) makes me smile. It’s refreshing to see a play not southern-centric in its geography.

The humour is black, blue, with some good old British Stephen-Fry-esque grammar jokes (“it’s hanged not hung”) and adolescent angst courtesy of Harry’s teenage daughter (“I don’t get doors. It’s in the shy charter”) thrown in for good measure. There’s something for everyone. Providing they’re 14+. Harry’s never had a complaint, although his pints might have a bit of a pissy taste.

The lines are hilarious but what McDonagh is trying to achieve with them is another matter. In the space of just over 50 years are we far enough away from the abolition of capital punishment as arbitrary ‘justice’ to laugh entirely comfortably? Can it be seen in different forms above our heads and outside our little “great” island today? What about the jokes about gay men, black people, women – all of which are certainly nothing novel? The first half of the play leaves you smugly feeling you’ve got it sussed, only for the plot to swing away entirely into brilliant unexpectedness in the second half. And indeed this audience experience of completely miscalculating is the difficult thing about ‘justice’ after all – particularly when it involves the death penalty – whether it is carried out in a prison or in a pub, what happens if we get it wrong?

Turns out we’re not all friendly up north.

 

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