Martin McDonagh Goes For The Jugular – Deadline

Sneaky, menacing and funny are descriptions that come up more than once in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmenbut not one of the three words quite does justice to this irresistibly pitch-black comedy, opening tonight at the Golden Theater on Broadway.

Then again, justice has very little to do with what goes on in this deliciously wicked tale of bloodstained propriety and revenge, state-sanctioned or otherwise. Set mostly in a Lancashire pub in the mid-1960s during the last days of England’s legal capital punishment, the Olivier Award-winning Hangmen resurrects not only an era of UK history but the playwright’s early fascination with very dark impulses (see: The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Pillowman).

And no one does dark impulses with as much comedic flare – yes, it’s sneaky, menacing and funny – as McDonagh at full tilt.

Directed with deadly assurance by Matthew Dunster, performed on a remarkably versatile set by a sensational cast, Hangmen would make an excellent companion piece to Tracy Letts’ The Minutes – at least for anyone looking to satisfy a hankering for the delightfully macabre.

Featuring a stand-out performance – the menacing one – by Alfie Allen (don’t look for any hints of his broken-spirited Game of Thrones character Theon “Reek” Greyjoy here), Hangmen begins with a brief and riveting prologue: It’s 1963, and the setting is a forlorn, brick-walled prison cell, where a condemned man sits weeping and ignored by two stoic guards. The doomed prisoner is named Hennessy, a name (and a performance by Josh Goulding) that will haunt all that comes later.

Proclaiming – pretty convincingly – his innocence until the very end, Hennessy meets a quick and definitive end at the hands of one Harry Wade (David Threlfall), one of the dedicated careerists who give Hangmen its title. No sooner does Hennessy go plunging (in a gasp-inducing showcase of Anna Fleischle’s set design that will be topped within minutes when the entire cell rises up and out of sight) that we’re transported to a homey North of England pub two years later , when the abolition of capital punishment is about to put ol ‘Harry out of the work that affords him pride and national celebrity.

‘Hangmen’ cast
Joan Marcus

Seemingly born to bully, Harry lords over the pub owned by wife Alice (Tracie Bennett), berating the regulars who lap up even the worst attention from a man as well-known across the country as any of the new pop stars Harry hates. Alice drinks too much gin, 15-year-old daughter Shirley (Gaby French) is, everyone agrees, mopey and plain (and, adds mom, not even beautiful on the inside) and the barflies are either obsequious sods (Richard Hollis, Ryan Pope), doddering sods (John Horton), or, in the case of the local police inspector who spends more time at the pub than the “cop shop,” an argumentative sod.

Into their little world come two intruders, the first being a pesky cub reporter (Owen Campbell) looking for a quote from the hangman on the last day of capital punishment, and, more consequentially, an odd and mod young man named Peter Mooney ), whose rapid, knowing patter and smug arrogance both startle and intrigue the locals.

Alfie Allen, Gaby French
Joan Marcus

Mooney’s slick if unstable demeanor signals he’s up to no good, but we don’t get the full impact – or what we think is the full impact – until an old associate of Harry’s shows up at the pub. Syd (Andy Nyman), a nervous, stuttering wash-out in the hangman trade, with a shady and lewd criminal past, confides to Harry that a strange, dapper young man has been asking questions about the Hennessy case, and even knows more about the young victims than maybe he should. Does Harry suppose, Syd asks, that they might have executed the wrong man?

And where, exactly, has Shirley gotten off to?

All that is pretty much just the set-up for what transpires after intermission, when Hangmen twists and turns like one of Harry’s luckless cases – 233, to be exact, a number that places the pompous Harry at # 2 in a longstanding rivalry with England’s top dispatcher Albert Pierrepoint, a rivalry that provides Harry with decades of resentment and Hangmen with loads of comic grist. Here’s Harry paying backhanded tribute to Albert’s 600-plus career total:

All I’m saying though is, all of them Nazis Pierrepoint did, all of them bastards as ran the camps and whatnot, I hold my hand up to him, I do. Good riddance to the lot of them, the swine. All I’m saying is they shouldn’t be allowed to go on his final score. Cos hanging Germans en masse, well, it int a hard job, is it? They do what they’re told, don’t they, they follow orders. ‘Stand o’er there, under that noose.’ ‘Alright, Sergeant Pierrepoint, owt else I can do for ya?’

In a top-notch production, Hangmen benefits immensely from Joshua Carr’s lighting design (the flickering of a jail cell’s fluorescent tubes, the chilling glow on a maybe-killer waving outside a window), and a sound design by Ian Dickinson that turns up the volume on scares one moment and falls eerily quiet the next – and puts just enough spooky reverb on the surf guitar music that borders each scene to place us squarely in the swinging era of Kray Brothers and Moors Murders.

Note, too, Fleischle’s costume design, as clever as her sets (if maybe not as showily spectacular as that fly space over the stage that houses more than the disappeared prison cell). The tousled-haired Mooney’s attire – brown blazer and dark pants, white shirt and skinny tie – seems a sly nod to the whistling sociopath of a well-remembered British cult horror film from 1968: If you aren’t silently replaying Bernard Herrmann’s jauntily sinister theme from 1968’s Twisted Nerve you might not have been paying enough attention when Kill Bill or American Horror Story paid loving homage.

Equally as character-defining is the ludicrously formal attire of the bow-tied, well-fed, mustachioed and thoroughly self-satisfied Harry (Threlfell, making a very welcome return to Broadway after a 25-year absence, and all but unrecognizable in this mesmerizingly Dickensian turn).

With a sure eye for finding the laughs and the shocks in McDonagh’s universe, director Dunster and his cast inhabit this little corner of the world with total conviction, conveying the larger implications – safe to say Harry’s resolute convictions about guilt, justice and the unshakeable rightness of his life’s work aren’t the mere personal quirks of an isolated individual – while maintaining the specificity of a seemingly safe little cocoon where everybody knows your name, if not your secrets.

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