The In-Person Broadway Review: Martin McDonagh’s Hangman
Even though I’ve seen this dark play off-Broadway, the first scene still throws us quite quickly into the complex violent world of the Hangmen. Roping us in tightly to what is at the core of Martin McDonagh’s 1963 England. It is that abject look of terror on this doomed man’s face, as he, Hennessy, played strongly by Josh Goulding (Off-Broadway’s Trainspotting) awaits what is coming for him. It’s desperation and fear that we feel latching on and holding tight in that bleak cell room, as we watch the man plead for his life while proclaiming his innocence. Something these Hangmen, I’m sure hear every day as they carry out their deadly duties. It’s a tense, electric scene, layered in twisted humor, making us laugh at the edgy violence that is to come, gripping hard to the dark humor, and pretty much never letting that twisted rope of connection go slack. Not for one bit.
The head hangman, a puffed-up Harry, played with a brilliant bravado by David Threlfall (Old Vic In Camera’s Faith Healer) is relaxed and workman-like, unaffected by Hennessy’s wild pleas. He is assisted by the nervous and stammering assistant, Syd, played perfectly weasel-like by Andy Nyman (West End’s Fiddler on the Roof) and two simple guardsmen (Richard Hollis, Ryan Pope) who struggle to get the job done. Once completed, eventually, they all go out for breakfast. It’s a strong trapdoor opening beginning, beautifully orchestrated by the sharp-minded director Matthew Dunster (West End’s 2:22 A Ghost Story) and fight choreographer, J. David Brimmer (Broadway’s Thérèse Raquin), which gives little to no indication of the importance (or non-importance) of this deadly moment. What should we take from this mayhem? Or what road or pub crawl playwright Martin McDonagh is about to lead us down through.
Then with a tense sharp flicker, courtesy of the brilliant lighting designer Joshua Carr (West End’s True West) and sound designer Ian Dickinson (Broadway’s Company), Hangmen‘s powerfully eerie set rises up into something quite different, amazingly taking us to another locale, one that was entirely unexpected. This new space, a meticulously created family-owned pub in Oldham, Lancashire, fantastically created by the inventive set and costume designer, Anna Fleischle (West End’s Home, I’m Darling), is really where this sorted tale is really going to spin out, much to our dark and humorous pleasure. And standing center, chest puffed out, holding court as he loves to do, is Harry, the ‘Second-Best’ hangman in England, the man we saw just going about his work casually in the first scene. He is now, we soon discover, been put out to pasture due to the abolishing of ‘death by hanging’. The day is a historic one, and just the very beginning of the unwinding.
Harry though, stands strong and wise, surrounded by his motley crew of admirers; Bill, played by Richard Hollis (Broadway’s The Curious Incident…), Charlie, portrayed by Ryan Pope (Royal Court’s Breathing Corpses), and the spectacularly hilarious Arthur, played to the max by John Horton (Broadway’s Noises Off), characters as dim-witted as they are funny (and unfortunately slightly underwritten). Those boyish men see pup-owner Harry as a bit of celebrity, standing and drinking in his pub, even if they don’t really like his beer, just to say they know him. This is how it all begins, and it couldn’t be more well sorted, as a young newspaper reporter, played astutely by Owen Campbell (PH’s Indian Summer) tries hard to get a headline-worthy reaction out of Harry to the day’s epic and historic news. All the while, watched over by his magnificently pitch-perfect wife, Alice, played to perfection by Tracie Bennett (NT’s Follies), his moody teenage daughter, Shirley, anxiously portrayed by Gaby French (Hampstead’s Scarlett), and his sardonic police inspector friend, Fry, played by the steadfast Jeremy Crutchley (RSC’s The Tempest), Harry jostles for greater status over the other, now-retired celebrity hangman, Albert Pierrepoint (at this performance, played by Peter Bradbury), whose hanging numbers might be higher, but somewhere within the off-handed comments about Germans, there are those who might quibble and argue with Albert’s title of ‘Best Hangman in England’. The main one being Harry who states that his hair smells “like death“, and views the two running ‘neck and neck’, if you pardon the expression.
But for the time being, all seems very jovial and fairly peaceful on this momentous day. That is until a disconcerting well-dressed southern gentleman strolls in, asking for a pint of whatever, as “they are all the same up north, aren’t they?”, and a bag of nuts. Something is off here. We can feel it the moment he walks in. No one can quite make out this shaggy-haired dandy by the name of Mooney. Played with a tight seductive and vaguely menacing manner by Alfie Allen (West End’s The Spoils; “Jojo Rabbit“), we soon find out what he is hanging around for. Or do we? He unquestionably doesn’t fit in at this typical small northern town pub, sitting stiffly at his table engaging in a way that tilts the scene off-balance. But we can’t quite get a handle on him either, even the young Shirley is intrigued, as is her mother, initially. But things most decidedly start to crackle with tense friction in that room, and as more time passes, and more pints are consumed, the electricity and sense of impending violence tighten like a noose around the neck, as the storm outside those pub doors gradually worsens.
Coming to Broadway after its very successful run at the Atlantic Theater and in London’s West End, Hangmen packs a powerful and dark-humored punch that keeps you dangling on the edge of your seat (or should I say toes?), making us feel squeamish about all that goes on within the walls of this quaint neighborhood pub. The casualness of violence in the room is a shock, peppered with racist and sexist comments, unsettling and disconcerting us at the drop of a hat, or chair. McDonagh’s writing shines as bright as the gallows are dark and deadly in this sharply focused play from Ireland’s most acclaimed living playwright. The feeling he brings to the room and for these people is as solid and British as ever, delivered the edge with precision and sinister glee. Hangmen is a powder keg of tense, hilarious wonderment, making us glad McDonagh, who most definitely wowed us before with his ferocious Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane over the years, has finally returned to Broadway, bringing to the stage his first US premiere in years after it got set back by 2020’s lockdown. The play surprises us with a few unexpected, dynamic, and sometimes hard-to-swallow orchestrations and twists, all the while engaging us completely with a breathless and ferocious relish, guaranteeing to make you laugh as you gasp at the trouble brought forth by the second-best Hangman in England.