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Hangmen review at the Royal Court, London – ‘a queasy exploration of capital punishment’

David Morrissey and Reece Shearsmith in Hangmen at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Photo: Tristram Kenton David Morrissey and Reece Shearsmith in Hangmen. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Martin McDonagh’s new play for the Royal Court, his first to premiere in the UK in over a decade, is a tar-black exploration of the men who made their living out of other men’s (and women’s) deaths: the British executioners, the hangmen.

David Morrissey plays Harry, one of the last of his kind. While not a household name like the famed Albert Pierrepoint, who in his day was a kind of celebrity, Harry was a respected figure with over 200 deaths under his belt.

The bulk of McDonagh’s play is set in the year in which capital punishment was abolished in the UK. Harry is trying to make a go of it as a pub landlord, but the shadow of his past profession is long. People still want to know, what it was like, to snuff out so many lives. While McDonagh’s play is a solidly constructed thing, drawing on real characters and events, it’s often possible to glimpse the tendons under its skin, the mechanics of it.

It’s the cast which really makes it work, relishing every line, rolling with it. Morrissey, long of body and deep of voice, is superb as Harry, pitching his performance perfectly, while Reece Shearsmith, as his distinctly creepy if officious former assistant Syd, revels in every murky aside that’s thrown his way. Shearsmith’s delivery in places is pure League of Gentlemen, though this is very much series three stuff: the League at their queasiest. Good as they both are, it’s Johnny Flynn, as the mouthy southern interloper, Mooney, who really stands out. His performance is wonderfully odd and wrong and jarring – scene-stealing in the very best way.

Anna Fleischle’s multi-level set is also a rich thing: the eerie cream brick death cell of the opening scene rises up, slowly and dramatically, to reveal an immaculate recreation of a 1960s boozer, all brass and etched glass, the wood brown as ale, the air like an ashtray, Dunhill-thick; there’s a Rillington Place taint to the whole the thing which feels fitting. But though Bronwyn James completely owns her scenes as Harry’s timid teenage daughter, Shirley, it doesn’t quite counteract the play’s underlying misogyny, nor the way it uses casual racism as punctuation – Hangmen may be a recreation of a certain era, but some of its lines sit uneasily.

McDonagh’s play may not rank among his best, but Matthew Dunster’s production makes the most of it. The plot, though somewhat formulaic – the twist really doesn’t feel like much of a twist – is gripping nonetheless and there’s some superb ensemble playing on display. It does feel though, with so much fascinating material to draw on, that more could have been done with it, that he could have pushed things that little bit further.

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Martin McDonagh's new play is queasy exploration of the professionalism of death, the final flutterings of capital punishment in the UK