Picture it. England. 1963. A prison cell on the day of one of the last hangings to occur in the United Kingdom before the Labour Party rule finally passes a bill which abolishes the death penalty.
Thus begins Hangmen, the latest import by the celebrated and multiple-award winning Martin McDonagh, notable for screenplays Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and In Bruges, and plays The Pillowman and The Beauty Queen of Leenane, among numerous others.
As Hangmen opens, a poor chap named Hennessy (Josh Goulding) is passionately protesting his innocence over the charge of raping a girl he never met, while bemoaning the fact that he’s being “hung by nincompoops.” Clinging to his bedstead in the presence of stuffy, blowhard executioner Harry Wade (David Threlfall) and his stuttering, bumbling assistant Syd (Andy Nyman, “You’re getting hanged by nincompoops” he corrects), Hennessy’s grip on the bedstead is finally broken when Wade thwacks him on the back of the head with a billy club, an act which draws shocked reactions from the doctor and Governor, who are also present. Hennessy’s last significant complaint before his abrupt and unceremonious death at the end of the rope is why he’s being “hung by a rubbish hangman” (Wade) instead of England’s #1 executioner, Albert Pierrepont (John Hodgkinson).
Fast forward two years, 1965; the scene is now Harry (Wade)’s pub, where he, his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett), and their 15-year-old daughter Shirley (Gaby French) are drafting pints for the local barflies.
Other than Clegg (Owen Campbell), a reporter from a local newspaper trying to convince retired hangman Harry to do an interview for him on this significant day, the second anniversary of the Hennessy hanging (and finally succeeding), all seems like an ordinary day at the pub until an unfamiliar bloke, Mooney (Alfie Allen) walks in, at which point events slowly turn in another, darker direction entirely, particularly when Shirley goes missing and suspicious eyes turn the not so ordinary Mooney who has suddenly appeared at the pub.
McDonagh’s dark, crisply funny script runs at quite a clip, so fast that it’s easy to miss some words or intents, particularly given the characters’ North England dialects. It was helpful to fill in the gaps with a read through of the script afterward, although the general audience was not afforded this opportunity. It eventually gets easier to hang onto the play at this density and pace, but one must remain diligent and listen intently to catch every detail, many of which are subtly dropped, cleverly written bits of foreshadowing and character irony. As funny as the script is, the direction by Matthew Dunster and ultimately the talents of the entire cast bring the humor of this play to its maximum pitch.
A friend commented that he finds McDonagh’s material to be darkly cruel; certainly such adjectives apply to Threlfall’s deft and spot-on performance as Harry. At times Harry appears to be simply an arrogant, stuffy buffoon, until cancerous spots of indifference and meanness begin to show on his character. When Harry’s daughter Shirley goes missing, Harry’s attention is divided between her disappearance and his star turn interview, often more toward the latter, and when his billy club comes out again, his menacing, bloodthirsty nature as a hangman spreads like a stain.
The two female characters in the play have fewer lines than the rest of the cast, but in this case, less is more when it comes to the rich, exacting performance given by Bennet as Harry’s wife Alice. Her looks, expressions and gin-soaked, smoke-fill retorts are priceless and full of meaning. French plays daughter Shirley with precise teenage angst and passion, by turns innocent and impertinent, moody and mopey.
When the much talked about Albert Pierrepont (executioner #1) finally makes an appearance to dress down Harry for his indiscreet interview, actor Hodgkinson fills the stage to every corner with his demanding presence. Nyman gives an excellently smarmy performance as the pathetic Syd, who has made secret plans with Mooney to punish Harry for his past humiliations; when these plans go awry, Syd attempts to right the wrong but ultimately fails.
Newcomer Mooney is played to perfection by Allen, who navigates Mooney’s contradictions and shifts of character with subtlety and humor. Mooney is baffling and mysterious; his intentions are outwardly intimidating and treacherous, yet he bewilderingly paints himself into a corner that he doesn’t seem to want to get out of, for reasons only known to him.
It is through Mooney that McDonagh ultimately presents the cruelty of mankind, not by demonstrating a cruelty in Mooney himself but in the others, who circle him like a pack of hyenas, savagely intent on a killing or being a willing spectator.
The remaining cast gives fine, funny and discerning performances in their roles, completely supporting the end result.
Hangmen only contains three settings, and the scenic design by Anna Fleischle created these settings in excellent detail, completely flying two of those locales in and out in their entirety. Lighting designer Joshua Carr and sound designers Ian Dickinson perfectly set the tones and moods of the play.
Hangmen is hysterically funny and at times disturbingly vicious; sounds like a perfect evening of theater.
Hangmen (through June 18, 2022)
Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, betw. 7th/8th Aves, NYC
For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit https://hangmenbroadway.com/
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.