True feelings are throttled and big questions left hanging in Martin McDonagh’s blacker-than-night comedy. The setting is an Oldham pub owned by Harry Wade, the country’s second-best hangman; the date is 1965, the day after the abolition of hanging. At once proud of his work and jealous of his rival Pierrepoint’s superior track record, Harry is prone to boasting about his past achievements. But when the arrival of an old colleague and a cocksure Cockney interloper throws new light on a dark incident in his career, he is faced with a moral quandary that he’s incapable of addressing.
Returning to the stage after a ten-year detour into film, McDonagh is no diminished force. There are echoes of Pinter and the Coen Brothers here, but the fizzing wordplay and gallows humour are distinctly his. Some jokes run on for too long – notably a recurring gag about a well-hung (or should that be “well-hanged”?) corpse. But Hangmen is a subtle piece of writing: it keeps the biggest drama offstage and leaves the most pressing facts unspoken, yet is never less than absorbing. Credit is due to the cast, notably Bronwyn James as Harry’s downtrodden daughter and Johnny Flynn as the Cockney with a shady backstory.
More than a personal drama, the play is also an evocation of an era. From the period detail of the pub set (revealed in a virtuosic coup de théâtre) to the barflies’ casually racist asides, we’re immersed in an age when upper lips were stiff, sex was something of a mystery and Germany-bashing was a national pastime. It’s a marvellous recreation, but McDonagh is no nostalgic. Anniversaries have a special significance in Hangmen; fifty years on from the end of capital punishment, the problem of arbitrary justice at the play’s core continues to dog us at home and abroad. We didn’t confront it then – are we doing enough today?