Hangmen by Martin McDonagh at the Wyndham’s Theatre

The play begins in a jail cell where a young man has a few moments before he is hanged. Officials carry out their tasks but the hangman has to use a kosh to quell the desperate behaviour of the condemned man. In so doing he orders others not to reveal what he has done: a curious illustration of relative morality in that the hanging is sanctioned by law but the koshing is not, and an example of how the finality of death enables brutalities in its name, as we see later in the play. The hangmen in the play are based on real characters.

The play continues in a pub in Oldham where it revolves around the landlord, Harry, and his regulars, a motley assortment of middle-aged and older men routinely cowed by the bullying and overbearing landlord whose other job was hangman in the first scene. It is the day in 1965 when the death penalty is abolished. This is not a didactic play about the morality of hanging but it is about its consequences. Into a bantering, sexist and prejudiced atmosphere arrives a young man, Mooney, immediately prompting a closing of ranks amongst the locals. Mooney subtly gets the better of the locals through the various transactions of buying drinks from the landlord and his family.  His stated purpose for being there is to hire a room from the landlord’s wife. He assumes a stance of mock horror, which is not entirely convincing, when she tells him that no-one answers the telephone numbers for his references. His is an enigmatic personality, not dissimilar to a Pinter character, and his disconcerting presence for some is altogether transformed for the purposes of inviting the landlord’s naïve daughter on a date. We become aware that there is a motive for his presence and his previous visit to the assistant hangman. Talk of a hanging occurring exactly a year earlier takes the play into an altogether darker place involving Mooney, especially when the daughter goes missing. An extraordinary denouement with comedic, farcical and morbid dimensions sees most of the characters disappear from a scene leaving a body on the floor. Is the deceased indeed the killer in a previous crime for which someone has already hanged? If he is not then what was his crime?

The strange notoriety that surrounds the hangman and his more famous rival, Albert Pierrepoint, who appears in the final scene, and their larger than life overbearing personalities, attend their roles as murderers sanctioned by the state. There may be uncertainty about the guilt of some of their previous victims but they are not going to spend too much time dwelling on it.

This is an excellent piece of theatre with outstanding performances from David Morrissey as Harry the landlord/hangman and Johnny Flynn as Mooney.   The play finds comedy in the darkest corners.

4/5 WIGS

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