Sam Taylor checks out The Guardian’s 2015 play of the year
Hangmen begins with the execution of a young man named Hennessy on the accusation of murdering an adolescent girl on a Norfolk beach. When the Death Penalty is made illegal by the UK government, Hennessy’s hangman, Harry (David Morrissey), retires to run a pub in Oldham where he regales his small group of regulars with tales from his hanging glory days. A day before the second anniversary of Hennessy’s hanging, a ‘menacing’, unhinged southerner named Mooney (Johnny Flynn) turns up at the pub and befriends Harry’s daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James). Another surprise visit, this time from Harry’s assistant, Syd (Reece Shearsmith), reveals that on the first anniversary of Hennessy’s hanging, another girl’s body was found with all the trademarks of the previous murder. Just as we learn this, we discover that the hangman’s 15-year old-daughter has gone missing, as has Mooney. Funny stuff so far, right?
Well the audience certainly thought so. People were laughing like drains throughout. The blatant disregard for any kind of sentimentalism, political correctness, or awareness of the seriousness of its subject matter gives Hangmen a surreal dark humour. From archetypal Northern characterisations, farce, and unexpected witticisms such as Kierkegaard never being mentioned in an Oldham pub before, the humour is constant and various.
Personally, the comedy came across as uneasy and forced. I found I could only really begin to laugh once the threat of a 15 year old girl choking to her death in a garage by the sea had been removed, which left just 3 minutes of the play to enjoy. Perhaps this is a sense of humour failure on my part. Meanwhile the lingering homophobia, sexism and racism, while demonstrating the attitudes of the time, was on occasion very uncomfortable. When Mooney ambiguously states: “Monkeys live in Africa”, certain sectors of the overwhelmingly white, over-50s audience responded with a “oohs” and a few suppressed laughs. Plays that make a joke of these outdated attitudes should guard against unintentionally approbating them too.
The opening and final scenes probably best toe the line between drama and humour. As Hennessy scrambles around in his cell, a farcical exchange takes place between the accused and hangman, which gradually sifts away tension, before its is ramped back up again as the noose is placed round Hennessy’s neck, and his body dropped in the blink of an eye, leaving the theatre enveloped in silence. This is the strongest moment of drama and should have set the precedent for the rest of the play.
Unfortunately, Hangmen struggles to build on the intensity of its opening. The remaining scenes, bar one, take place in a sparsely filled Oldham pub, conspicuous in its wooden brownness. The set certainly emphasises the demure – the unsexy side of the swinging ’60s that we don’t usually get to see – but it is a shame more isn’t done with the impressive pyrotechnics that lift the jail cell up into the theatre’s aether. The fact that so much of the play is held in this one setting contributes to the feeling that the first half is meandering.
The second half also takes a while to grasp its narrative and drive it home. It is only until the final scene that the performance comes together. As Harry, using the spare noose that he keeps behind the bar, interrogates Mooney as to the whereabouts of his daughter, Albert Pierrepoint, an even more highly revered hangman, makes his entrance. While Pierrepoint berates Harry for the slanderous interview he gave to a local newspaper, Mooney, obscured by a curtain, dangles precariously, barely propped up by a chair. This chair is later kicked out from behind the curtain, momentarily halting Pierrepoint before he continues his war of words with Harry. By the time Pierrepoint has finally gone, Mooney has suffocated to death. It is at this moment that Harry’s daughter storms back in.
The finale leaves you rather off balance and causes you to reevaluate what you have seen. Expecting the play to have a direct moral thrust, like I did, is to approach it in the wrong way. The play is not preachy or didactic. But the folly and injustice of capital punishment is nonetheless demonstrated in the course of events and the fates of the characters. Hangmen does make light of hanging but is not entirely callous in its presentation. Even if it doesn’t make you laugh, it will certainly make you think – even if that question is: “what the fuck is going on?”
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Hangmen is on at Wyndham’s Theatre until 5th March
Featured Image Credits: Helen Maybanks