I heard so many good things about this play that I couldn’t not go and see it. January’s a pretty challenging month at the best of times and I thought a bit of humour would be welcome. As the name should suggest, this play is black humour at its best.
There is a short prologue to open Martin McDonagh’s play: our hangmen are attempting to carry out their role but the condemned man proclaims his innocence. No matter, he is swiftly dealt with and indeed hung in front of the audience, one of those moments that you brace for but still can’t help wince at.
Jump forward two years and our hangman antihero, Harry (David Morrissey) is working behind the bar of his Oldham pub. This is the setting for most of the rest of the play and brought back memories of my own barmaid days. There was always something incredibly sad about those men who arrive at the pub within minutes (or seconds) of the doors opening, but they all had stories to tell. For the most part, the laughs come thick and fast because it’s all so natural. The dialogue is perfect, the characters so true to life that I could pair each one with a bloke who used to come into the pub where I worked. You know that Harry is setting himself up for a spectacular fall (no pun intended) but even when stranger Mooney (Johnny Flynn) walks in you don’t quite realise at first how it all ties together.
The tension builds, Harry’s daughter goes missing and the audience become complicit in what becomes an incredibly grim finale. But even through the torture we all carried on laughing. How clever. It isn’t until on the train home or the next day that you think back on what you’ve seen. Once the jokes have been forgotten, the harsh truth is left behind.
There was only one aspect of this play that I thought misjudged. Although I was not alive in 1965 I am aware that racism was a lot more prevalent then, and likely there were words spoken in small grotty pubs full of middle-aged white men that would now only be said aloud in the company of the most right-wing EDL’ers. However, in a modern play, albeit one set in those times, it jars. Some reviews I have read defend it as a sign of the times, adding to the tone of the piece and cementing its setting. I disagree. For a start, if you mean to make your audience uncomfortable use the correct vernacular of the time. There’s no point talking about a ‘funny-looking black chap’ in the paper. We all know what word would have been used back then. Also these little anecdotes were randomly scattered, not adding to the narrative and in fact were more of a distraction. I thought it quite a clumsy way of introducing racism into a play without a character of colour or a thread of story to attach it too.
That said, the above does not detract from the fact that this is still a brilliant play and I highly encourage everyone to go and see it if in London. If not, then check local cinemas for the NT Live broadcast in March.
Hangmen is currently booking until 5th March 2016 (Showing in selected cinemas: NT Live 3rd March)