Tuesday, January 12, 2016

HANGMEN at the Wyndhams Theatre - 2016 theatregoing starts with a swing...

Four days into the new year and there I was... sitting in a theatre again!  Well you never know... I might get out of the habit.

My first play of the year was Martin McDonagh's deep black comedy HANGMEN which originated at the Royal Court and which has now transferred to the Wyndhams Theatre.  It has received across the board raves and is a bit of a sell-out, thanks in no small part to it being a rare theatre outing for David Morrissey.  While I admired a lot of the writing and the performances, it did rather leave the impression of being a Pinter play with knob jokes.

It starts in 1963 as we watch the last minutes in the life of young Hennessy, about to hang for the murder of a young girl.  He becomes more hysterical when the hangman Harry and his assistant Syd arrive in his cell.  Frantically proclaiming his innocence, Hennessy realises his hangmen are from the North which really upsets him!  Harry is none too pleased by this either - he may hate the men and women he executes but he believes that they deserve as quick a service as he can offer and angered by Hennessy's taunts, he eventually strong-arms him to his death.

Anna Fleischle's prison-cell set then rises to the heavens to reveal a large but gloomy pub in Oldham.  It is now two years later, the death penalty has just been abolished giving Harry the chance to run his pub full-time.  However a persistent local reporter finally gets Harry to give an interview where he pours scorn on his more famous colleague Albert Pierrepoint and to also reaffirm his belief that Hennessy was guilty and not the victim of a miscarriage of justice as is being reported.

Harry runs his pub with his wife Alice and their sullen teenage daughter Shirley who is bored by her existence of serving the same dreary male customers every night.  On the night of Harry's interview a young stranger, Mooney, arrives in the pub from London and slowly starts a barrage of sarcastic comments about the pub, Oldham, Harry's past job and in particular, about the hanging of Hennessy.

Who is Mooney and what is his interest in Harry and the case of Hennessy?  Slowly it is revealed that a year after the hanging, another young girl was found murdered on a beach in exactly the same way - did Harry hang an innocent man?  Has Mooney arrived as an avenging angel or has he a more scary purpose in mind?  He is quick to chat up the lonely, unloved Shirley and invites her to a secret afternoon out on the beach.  The reappearance of Syd, Harry's estranged hanging assistant, gives the plot another twist when it is revealed that he knows more about Mooney than he says he does.  And now Shirley has not come home...

McDonagh's plot eventually started to teeter on the brink of absurdity at the end and I found a couple of 'surprise' plot twists all too obvious.  What cannot be denied however is his knack for tense head-to-head scenes which float on a sea of apprehensive, barely disguised dread, along with a cracking cast and an involving production under the sure hand of directer Matthew Dunster.

Dunster maintains the slightly unsettling atmosphere almost throughout the play, only faltering slightly at the climax of the play but this is more down to the obviousness of McDonagh's final plot twist.  As I said he is helped enormously by Fleischle's set - you can almost smell the pub's slop-tray - and Joshua Carr's lighting.

Bronwyn James as the unhappy teenager Shirley, is all the more impressive in that his is her West End debut.  McDonagh's rather obvious character - the fat, bored and unhappy girl - is transformed by Bronwyn James into the one character that you vaguely feel any sympathy for.  Sally Rogers as Harry's nervy wife could not make the same true in her character.

Johnny Flynn was also successful in making Mooney more than just a threatening Pinteresque outsider and there was good work too from Tony Hirst, Ryan Pope and Simon Rouse as Harry's eternal customers and John Hodgkinson was also good as a surprise last-minute visitor from Harry's past, the only man who can reduce the sneering pub patriarch into a cowed man.

David Morrissey certainly gave a barnstorming performance as the surly, domineering Harry but although he was good I found him a bit one-note.  As I said, towards the end of the play, just as Harry is exacting revenge the only way he knows how, the pub is visited by someone from Harry's past who browbeats him into an apology.  This was the only time Morrissey dropped the 'ard man act, a few more opportunities to vary the tone might have made it a truly stand-out performance.

There is a much better performance from Andy Nyman as Syd, Harry's nebbish former assistant.  It turns out Syd was fired from the job for telling people about the size of a hanged man's knob and he has never forgiven Harry for informing on him.  Nyman stole every scene he was in and somehow made Syd pathetic, creepy and hysterically funny all at the same time!  He also had the best sight-gag involving a pair of car keys...

Would I recommend HANGMEN?  Definitely, just don't expect to find too many layers...

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