Hangmen, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until November 9
The mood is sombre. A condemned man is dragged mercilessly from his cell to be hanged. No cause for amusement here. So why are we laughing?
Time moves along and dark clouds enshroud the whole moral question of execution. Yet still we laugh.
Playwright Martin McDonagh saunters mischievously between the sordid and the sublime with this extraordinary piece of stage expressionism. As with his previous works for theatre and film, he takes us on a roller-coaster of twisting motives and madly mixed emotions.
To capture such essence is no small achievement and this production can hold its head high in penetrating the hidden complexities of the writer’s mind while at the same time being hugely entertaining.
From the outset, with the brilliantly staged execution scene being rendered as black farce, we are subjected to ongoing wicked irony. Richard Moore’s masterful set design transforms the 1963 prison cell into a cosy Oldham blokes’ pub two years later and here, under tight direction by Tom O’Connor, the crusty old regulars spark hilariously into their everyday lifestyle.
For landlord Harry, on the day when hanging is abolished, there is much to be savoured from his old job as the number two hangman. Craig Shelton gives a splendidly blustering portrayal of pride in the work and contrasting bitterness over his past rivalry with the more famous Pierrepoint – We were always neck and neck, he states.
The plot weaves further into disarray and an air of menace descends with the arrival of an enigmatic stranger who hints of danger to the landlord’s young daughter. Jimmy Proctor’s fine-tuned performance imbues this newcomer with an almost satanic sense of glee. And bouncing off this is a wonderfully creepy former hangman’s assistant from Phil Reynolds, who triggers one of the play’s funniest moments.
Teamwork thrives all round with Susanne Jackson-Maine and Lauren Bignall ensuring that the women’s parts keep pace with the male-orientated environment, and Gus MacDonald relishing a fearsome Pierrepoint finale spot.
McDonagh’s play embodies numerous hints on issues such as guilt, racism and sadism and even tries to provoke thought on pro’s and cons of capital punishment. It’s a brave undertaking which is here magnificently realised.