Let’s get it off our chests now. Hangmen will have you ‘in suspense’, it ‘goes with a swing’ there’s plenty of ‘gallows humour’, it’s a plot that ‘leaves you dangling’ with ‘twists and turns’ and ‘a play with legs’ that moves at ‘breakneck’ speed and would be ‘criminal’ if you missed it. We could go on.
Approaching Wyndham’s Theatre you are mown down with five-star quoted praise, appropriately on hanging signs for Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, transferred from the Royal Court. “Outstanding”, “Hangman is hilarious” “one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, GO SEE IT!”. Everybody’s on the same page — even Londonist has already told you it was ‘perfectly executed’.
Your reviewer’s prison time is, so far, limited. As HMP Wandsworth’s interior designer for about half an hour in the 1980s even then, on the wings or when playing the prison’s cricket and darts teams you could tell the warders were every bit as rough and ready as the chaps behind the feyly-painted pink, yellow and mauve cell doors done by the firm they’d just fired.
And this is the point McDonagh is making: that dispatching resentful criminals by violence may breed violence and resentment in their captors. It’s not new ground, but marrying it to the sort of glancingly racist and sexist northern comedy popular on black and white TV is a bravura move.
Cast changes haven’t diminished the production at all — in fact replacing the obvious clowning of Reece Shearsmith with the more realistic character acting of Andy Nyman gives his character Syd the assistant hangman finer pathos and credibility as a man with a flawed plan of revenge: Syd’s downfall was that he once — just once — was observed inspecting the amply filled trouser area of what we can’t resist calling a ‘hardened criminal’.
Plenty of critics referenced Pinter, but we say the black comedy and completely irreverent humour points more to Joe Orton: when the ramrod retired second-most-famous hangman, now a publican, meets lazy, louche and cocky long-haired Southern lad, there’s more than a shadow of Entertaining Mr Sloane and the tension between David Morrissey and tremendous Johnny Flynn are what gives the play its spine.
So many of the broadsheets fell over themselves to draw comparisons with everyone from Synge, O’Casey and James Joyce to Pinter, Orton and Rattigan it’s as though they were saying “Jaysus, McDonagh why don’t ye just feck off and write something original?”
But he has.
Hangmen continues at Wyndham’s Theatre until 16 March. Tickets £23.15-£101.75. Londonist saw this production on complimentary tickets.