In “Hangmen,” Martin McDonagh Plays Fast and Noose

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Graeme Hawley (Bill), Ryan Pope (Charlie) and Simon Rouse (Arthur) in Martin McDonagh's Hangmen, now at the Royal Court Theatre in London. All photos by Simon Annand.

He’s done it again.

For a while he said he wouldn’t do it again, but Martin McDonagh has. There was a time after he produced The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Lonesome West, The Pillowman and a few other equally daft scarers — all in a space of a few years, starting in the 1990s — when he said he was through with playwriting and wanted to forge on to movies, which he initially did with the terrific In Bruges.

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Then not long ago McDonagh had second thoughts and came up with A Behanding in Spokane, which, while brimming with his special brand of skewed menace, wasn’t up to his earlier standards. But now he’s done it again. He’s written another one of his comically nasty — okay, let’s just say marvelously unique — plays: Hangmen.

On entering, the first thing the audience sees is set designer Anna Fleischle’s mustard-yellow-pea-green vaulted prison cell. It’s 1963, and when the lights go up proper, James Hennessy (Josef Davies), head down, is sitting at a table between two guards. In comes Harry Wade (David Morrissey), the hangman, accompanied by assistant Sydney Armfield (Reece Shearsmith). Following Hennessy’s final protestation that he’s innocent, a noose drops from the ceiling and, falling through a trapdoor in the floor, he is hanged.

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David Morrissey (Harry)
David Morrissey (Harry)

The cell rises and disappears. It’s two years later: hanging has also disappeared as capital punishment in England, and we’re in Fleischle’s idea of a hulking North England pub. Here’s where hangman Harry now presides with his sexy, crisp wife Alice (Sally Rogers), and his shy, plump daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James). On hand for pints are barflies: ebullient Bill (Graeme Hawley), wiry Charlie (Ryan Pope), half-deaf Arthur (Simon Rouse), and, holding up the other end of the bar, Inspector Fry (Ralph Ineson), an ex-plainclothes policeman. A fast-talking, wild-haired man, Peter Aloysius Mooney (Johnny Flynn), arrives from the south of England — dreaded London — to affect the atmosphere.

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Also in attendance is local journalist Clegg (James Dryden), who — amid the general mocking banter — aims to interview Harry about his hangman days. He wants to know how Harry feels to be declared obsolete. Part of Clegg’s strategy to land the interview involves bringing up the name Albert Pierrepoint — the former number one hangman of the area, compared to whom Harry was always considered number two.

Harry grants the interview, but insists that details of his hangings are sacrosanct. This leads to the next scene, after Clegg’s interview has published and Harry, it seems, considered those details not so sacrosanct. Which has the affect of introducing a newcomer to the pub — Syd, the assistant, who Harry often used to denigrate.

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Bronwyn James (Shirley).
Bronwyn James (Shirley).

And playwright McDonagh is off. For as Mooney expatiates on various subjects and also chats up the easily charmed Shirley, it begins to seem possible that he is the man who murdered the young girl for whom Hennessy was hanged. Matters thicken when, later on this gloomy day, Shirley disappears.

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McDonagh has created the kind of situation in which he — alone among contemporary playwrights — can keep not only menace from lurking in the play’s shadows but then interweave it with macabre humor. For instance, he gets a running gag going about Syd. It has to do with him once commenting on the large member of a hanged man — an observation that still provides Harry with endless opportunities to mock. The jokes keep coming — possibly the one that reaps the biggest laugh includes the word “car keys.” It’s a great one.

And as McDonagh’s imagination has no boundaries, he offers complication after complication. Shirley hasn’t returned to the pub — but Mooney has, after storming off earlier. Mooney then figures in an even more confounding scene with resentful Syd. Meantime, Harry allows his suspicions about Mooney to reawaken his professional inclinations, so he strings Mooney up, hoping to frighten the truth out of him, leaving the pub regulars uncertain what to do.

Reece Shearsmith (Syd).
Reece Shearsmith (Syd).

That’s when McDonagh, that sly fox, brings on the much-mentioned Pierrepoint (extremely tall John Hodgkinson). With Mooney hidden behind a hastily contrived curtain, Pierrepoint expounds about Clegg’s interview and objecting to Harry’s careless blabbing. The beauty of this scene is how Harry, who in his bow-tie moments earlier was cavalier and cruel, shrinks in contrast to Pierrepoint.

But that’s enough — maybe too much — of the skillfully constructed Hangman plot. It would be unfair to disclose what happens behind the curtain as Pierrepoint presses his points. It would be unfair to relate what Pierrepoint does when he demands a chair — and the only one handy looks to be the one holding Mooney up.

What’s overridingly wonderful about Hangman is how McDonagh mixes menace with comic mayhem. Never letting up on the anxiety prompted by Mooney and his unpredictable behavior, he continues to get laughs from the disdain held by those from northern and southern England for each other. It’s more than that: McDonagh gets laughs whenever he wants. He gets them even as the possibility of a murderer being present chills the proceedings.

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Hangman is directed by Matthew Dunster, who has no trouble maximizing McDonagh’s dramatic gifts. There’s nothing the colorful cast isn’t up to doing exceedingly well — each exhibiting the quirks so neatly worked into their roles. (McDonagh’s script includes a discussion of personality quirks and Harry’s denial that he has any.) They’re all — Morrissey, Mooney, Hodgkinson — amusing, though most amusing of all may be old Arthur (done to a turn by Rouse), the inveterate curmudgeon who always speaks the truth as he knows it. Joshua Carr’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound (for Autograph) add to the somber jollity.

In his earlier plays, which took place in Ireland (though the Irish playwright has spent most of his life in England), McDonagh always gave the impression he was having a helluva time riffing on perceived Irish stereotypes. He could practically be heard chuckling as he snappily tossed off his spoofs. So now he’s taken on Northern England with the same glee. How craftily has he succeeded? How much do I like Hangmen? I can’t wait to see it again.