Equal parts horrifying and funny, Hangmen
is good enough to be criminal.
If you like clever but pitch-dark humor,
sharp wit, characters that you can’t quite figure out, twists, surprises, and
tons of contrasts, McDonagh is your man, and Hangmen is your show.
State-sanctioned murder is at the core
of the play, the bulk of which takes place in a pub owned by Harry (David
Threlfall), the second-greatest hangman in Great Britain. It’s the day after
England has abolished hanging as capital punishment, and Harry has gone from
being a public servant to serving in the pub – from the power of death to
Ensemble; photo by Joan Marcus
There is much talk about him being the
second-greatest, and thereby hangs a tale (so to speak.) His rival, Pierrepoint
(John Hodgkinson), killed many more than Harry. Was he better at his job, or
was it just that he hanged Germans during WWII, and Harry did not? Has Harry
fallen from former glory by drawing pints in the pub? Did he even have former
Although it’s refreshing to see a play
that doesn’t kowtow to flexible modern moral attitudes but sticks to solid
truths (killing people is bad, being good at your job is admirable), McDonagh
leaves you hanging on this question, as you think about having a bit of
sympathy for Harry.
How do we find ourselves giving a damn
about a man so cruel, he’s proud of having killed hundreds of people, and
envious of Pierrepoint, who killed hundreds more?
Harry is cruel to his tough wife (a
super performance from Tracie Bennett); cruel to his
sad-sack daughter (Gaby French); cruel to the “lads” who drink in his
Lancashire pub (Richard Hollis, John Horton, Ryan Pope, Jeremy Crutchley). He’s
terribly cruel to his weaselly assistant in the prison (Andy Nyman). Surely, we
have not become so calloused that we admire thoroughness, no matter in what
form, even thoroughness in cruelty?
Tracie Bennett; Gaby French; Photo by Joan Marcus
The community around him treats Harry as
a local hero, especially the lads in the pub; they seem to venerate him, and
everyone wants to know all the grisly details of being a hangman, which Harry
refuses to share, calling them “sacrosanct.”
Ensemble; photo by Joan Marcus
Somehow, a reporter (Owen Campbell)
manages to get an interview with Harry, and after a little initial resistance,
Harry spills the formerly sacrosanct secrets of being the second-greatest
hangman in England. After the newspaper prints the story and the locals are
thrilled, that article plays all kinds of merry hell in Harry’s life.
For one thing, a very strange stranger
intrudes – Mooney (Alfie Allen), clearly a Londoner, and either creepy or
menacing, depending who you ask (he calls himself menacing). Is he a celebrity
hound? Some kind of weirdo? Or something more sinister, perhaps a serial
murderer, maybe even guilty of the murders done by someone Harry hanged?
(Pay attention during the Prologue; lots of clues and hints are laid
there.) Or is Mooney simply annoying as hell, the kind of guy who likes to step
on your toes and blame you for putting your foot under his? One thing’s sure:
Mooney is pretty clever.
Alfie Allen; David Thelfall; Photo by Joan Marcus
For that matter, everything about
Hangmen is clever; the superbly dimensional scenic design by Anna Fleischle,
making great use of the space – as above, so below -- also her spot-on
costuming. Joshua Carr’s lighting design sets just the right menacing mood.
Period-perfect surf-guitar music intros to each scene set us firmly in Swinging
England of the 1960s (sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph).
McDonagh’s script is so polished, all that
cleverness looks easy, if not simple, as if you could walk into any worn, brown
pub in Lancashire and hear snappy repartee and gallows humor in
The cleverness tips over into horrifying
farce, at a certain point, but by then, you almost expect it; you’ve been
laughing and wincing for a while, often at the same things, same time. By the
end of the first act, you may perhaps think you know what’s going on; enough
clues and hints are laid there that the second act seems like a foregone
conclusion. Don’t be fooled -- the second act twists around like a body at the
end of a noose.
Hangmen is pure
McDonagh: darkly humorous, bleak, surprising. Expect the unexpected,
beautifully written, handsomely designed, and wonderfully performed.
At the Golden Theatre
245 W. 45th Street, New York.
Seats available through June 18