Hangmen: a title with no context so it would be easy to imagine a dismal and distressing play. Yet it’s actually the very antithesis of this. Prolific playwright Martin McDonough play is a hilarious, almost enlightening, story about the abolition of capital punishment; Hanging – darkest of matters and how it has not managed to defend its means. This is one of Mcdonoughs’s many plays where his macabre humour pays off with great success, alongside his other stage works including The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Pillowman, not to mention his film credits such as Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.
Set in Lancashire in the swinging sixties, the tale mixes an undeniably darkness with the dreariness of Lancashire Northern pub life. As pub owner Harry, John Dobson is both merciless and energetic. He also has a double life as an executioner who hangs condemned people. However, as of today, hanging has been abolished, so Harry has ‘tied up his noose’ for the last time and is now seen as the local hero. Known as the second-best hangman, his celebrity status continues to thrive. When a three page spread splatters on to the newspaper, he continually reads out various statements as the play churns along, clearly full of pride, including the number of people he has hung. To stifle us even more, a new visitor, Emre Kose’s Mooney, enters the pub, who manages to rattle the celebrity to the literal bitter end. Who’s end though you will have to find out!
Elsewhere, Harry’s daughter Shirley (Ines Walker) is meek but endearing while his wife Alice (Helen Walker) is the classic country pub wife. We all know the type, regulars come not just for their rampant alcoholism but also to have a chat with her. The two bring the perfect consolation this play needs, so the audience don’t literally squirm to abolition.
It’s refreshing to see a play written with a traditional structure and genuine language expertise; one thing McDonough’s writing will go down with is its pure wit. There are plenty of giggles about whether the past tense of “to hang” is “hanged” or “hung.”
The down to earth Questor’s Theatre in Ealing is an apparent favourite of Stanislavski’s and many members of the Moscow arts theatre. It certainly attracted a howling and slightly older audience compared to much of the fringe venues we usually frequent. That isn’t to say that, as a 20-year-old that this play or venue wasn’t for me. The venue is more than welcoming, while the play will have anyone falling off their seat. I was certainly one of those howling with laughter.
Hangmen is an example of proper theatre. You are entertained, your belly is relaxed and you will leave feeling slightly on edge, things that good theatre should do. Highly recommended – take that trip to the blood curdling west of London. It will be a lethal adventure. If I compared this play to a femme fatale – they would be notorious.
Written by: Martin McDonough
Directed by: Anne Neville
Produced by: The Questors Present
Hangmen plays at The Questor’s Theatre until 11 June. Further information and bookings can be found here.
You can also read more about the staging of this play in our recent interview with director Anne Neville.