fri 06/12/2019

Hangmen, Royal Court Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Hangmen, Royal Court Theatre

Hangmen, Royal Court Theatre

Comedy about 1960s Britain starring Reece Shearsmith and David Morrissey lacks heart

Deadly evening: Reece Shearsmith in ‘Hangmen’.Simon Annand

Welcome back Martin McDonagh. It’s been more than 10 years since you’ve had a play on in London, and I was beginning to think that we had lost you to Broadway, and Hollywood, for ever. As you know, I loved it when your Leenane Trilogy burst onto our stages in the late 1990s, and although I wasn’t that keen on some of the follow-ups, your The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) and The Pillowman (2003) are among my favourite plays. I wasn’t madly impressed by your films, no, not even the highly hyped In Bruges, but your return to the stage has raised my expectations. Especially with Reece Shearsmith and David Morrissey in the cast – whoa!

The set up is immediately gripping: the first scene shows a gruesome execution in 1963. As you’d expect from a McDonagh play with the title Hangmen, the main characters are two executioners and the tone is darkly humorous. Harry, the main hangman, is played by Morrissey and dominates the stage; his assistant Syd (Shearsmith), by contrast, is rather incompetent. Nevertheless, they manage to dispatch the prisoner Hennessy, who loudly protests his innocence and curses the two men. After the ghastly deed is done, the story jumps forward two years.

The problem with McDonagh is that he is in love with the sound of his own voice

It’s 1965 on the day that capital punishment was abolished, and we find ourselves in Harry’s pub in Oldham. It’s a rundown, nicotine-stained and greasy place, but Harry – because of his job – is a local celebrity, and the place has a regular clientele of cronies. Helped by his wife Alice and his 15-year-old daughter Shirley, a bit of a mope, he rules the roost. Everyone, especially a local newspaper reporter, wants to know about his old job, and you can understand the fascination: although not as celebrated as the legendary executioner Albert Pierrepoint, Harry certainly has some tales to tell.

But what about Hennessy’s curse? When a sinister young man, Mooney, arrives from down south, Harry’s world reacts with mockery, but pretty soon this stranger becomes the prime suspect in the sudden disappearance of Shirley. After an overlong exposition scene, the story becomes one of revenge and retribution. But before things hot up, as they do especially in the second half, I was having serious doubts about my initial enthusiasm, and my high expectations soon turned to dust.

The problem with McDonagh, I remembered, is that he is in love with the sound of his own voice. As the story develops all you can hear is not the characters, but their author. And, in this play, he is at his most repetitive and most senselessly provocative. All the jokes laugh at northerners, at blacks, at women, at gays. They mock the working class; they sneer at weakness. Don’t mention the war? If only. McDonagh sticks out his tongue at Germans. At fat people. At deaf people. At one point, there’s a “cock” joke, then another, then another. Then yet another. By the end of the play, I’d had enough of cock jokes. What is so infuriating is not so much that the jokes aren’t funny (at least not to me), it’s that the characterisation is so thin. Clearly McDonagh doesn’t love his creations; and, if doesn’t care, why should we?

Despite some nicely twisted plotting, there is something distressingly inhuman about this play. Near the end, while all around me were pissing themselves with laughter, I recalled a phrase I’d heard – at the height of in-yer-face theatre – back in the mid-1990s: we have been dehumanised – and we’re loving it. Except that this time I wasn’t. So although Shearsmith and Morrissey (pictured above) deliver strong performances, and Johnny Flynn is eye-catching as Mooney, the writing feels thin to me (would this play have been put on without McDonagh’s name on it?), and I didn’t empathise with any of the deeply unattractive and poorly realised characters. The puerile self-indulgence of the enterprise would have been depressing if it hadn’t also made me angry. What a waste of resources. Matthew Dunster’s atmospheric but cumbersome production, on Anna Fleischle’s tenebrous set, will delight anyone who is really desperate for a laugh, but it’s nowhere near McDonagh’s best work. Rarely has my enthusiasm been so misplaced. For me, a hateful evening.

@AleksSierz

Comments

I simply could not disagree with your views on this play more vehemently. My experience of McDonagh is limited to three earlier plays but I would say that Hangmen is considerably more interesting, ingenious and , yes, hilarious than any of those. Of course you are entitled to your views (and are paid to espouse them) but, to my mind, they are a tad idiosyncratic. I feel that we might have been watching different plays.

I agree with Baldaccino, The review is so completely out of sync with other reviews (4 5Stars and 3 4Stars) and even admittedly with the rest of the audience there with the reviewer that you wonder what is the reviewers intention. Would he really not advise people to see this show called in Time Out "the funniest and most entertaining show theatre show in London at the moment"?

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