Martin McDonagh is the sort of writer who has you laughing at things you know you shouldn’t be laughing at.
In The Beauty Queen of Leenane you laugh at a mother and a daughter destroying one another. In the film In Bruges you find yourself laughing at – and even empathising with – a psychopathic killer, played endearingly by Colin Farrell.
In Hangmen you’re invited to laugh at cruelty, put-downs and casual, politically incorrect racism. There are no likeable characters in this play, with the possible exception of Harry the (ex) hangman’s plump daughter Shirley – nicely played by Bronwyn James – who hides behind a wall of shyness and sudden aggression towards parents who accuse her of ‘moping’. Now there’s a character I can identify with.
Set in the 1960s, the first act trundles along quite merrily in its Orton- and Pinteresque way, set in a fuggy pub presided over by the bow-tied ex hangman Harry and his wife, and peopled by men – no women – who seem to have nothing else to do but hang around drinking pints (Harry won’t allow them to drink anything else) and hanging on Harry’s every word. For someone who was probably not old enough to remember the sixties (unlike me) McDonagh captures the atmosphere perfectly, with just a couple of blips: I would take a bet that no one in those days referred to ‘train stations’, that being a relatively modern Americanisation of what used to be called railway stations. And not enough of the pub customers smoke to be able to create the fug produced by the theatre’s smoke machines, not to mention the distracting smell of herbal cigarettes. Otherwise, it’s pretty spot-on.
The second act is full of plot twists to do with disappearing daughters and possible past murderers who escaped Harry’s noose, and the sudden appearance of Harry’s number one rival and nemesis, Albert Pierrepoint, (ex) Chief Hangman. But the play isn’t really a thriller. It’s not even really about hangmen. It is ultimately, and disappointingly in my view, about nothing more than the rivalry of the Alpha Male. Every character has to feel superior to someone else, so while Harry bullies everyone beneath him, from his (ex) assistant to his daughter and his customers, he in turn is cowed and humiliated by his superior, Pierrepoint.
The play has won five and four stars from every major newspaper reviewer other than the Daily Mail, and I wonder whether that might have something to do with the fact that it started its life in the much smaller space of the Royal Court theatre. From the Upper Circle of Wyndham’s it promises more than it delivers. Beneath the clever menace and banter and the uncertainty of who was who and why, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal going on. In the end it’s about nothing more than oneupmanship, with emphasis on the ‘man’.
But it’s impressive to see the first set, a prison cell, rise up all the way into the flies to reveal the pub beneath it. Who’d have thought there was that much room up there in the roof of the Wyndham’s Theatre?