The first of the two hangmen we meet is named Harry (Mark Addy, in a large and boisterous performance), who’s in the process of executing Hennessy (a desperate Gilles Geary), a rapist who insists he’s innocent and claims, “I’m getting hung by nincompoops.” Nevertheless, a noose descends from the ceiling and Hennessy is hanged by dropping through a trapdoor in the stage floor.
Such is the setup for the many twists and turns in the tale that’s about to unfold, and it begins to do just that as the drab and grim hanging room turns itself inside-out to become Harry’s elaborately designed pub in a small town in Lancashire, England, with a much-used staircase going to upstairs rooms. (The astonishingly realistic set has been designed by Anna Fleischle, who also did the apt costumes.)
The pub/inn is basically run by Harry’s no-nonsense wife Alice (Sally Rogers) and their “mopey” and “moody” fifteen-year-old daughter Shirley (Gaby French), who becomes pivotal in the plot’s unusual developments. Keep your eye particularly on Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a stranger to this tight-knit community, who just happens in to Harry’s pub relatively early on, and is interested in taking a room there as well. But as is customary in a McDonagh scenario, everything darkens with a comic flair.
While declaring himself “a servant of the Crown in the capacity of hangman” for the last twenty-five years, Harry tells a reporter, Clegg (Owen Campbell), that he has “no comment” on the day the country has abolished hangings. This is in 1965, when the second scene and second act are set. But then, Harry proves quite willing to go on record about “this abolition business,” even as he talks at length about the second hangman of the play’s title, Albert, who doesn’t arrive on stage until the final scene when he becomes a commanding and even frightening presence in the person of Maxwell Caulfield.
Even more frightening is the spiffy Mooney, however, who is even described as “menacing”–and menace he does, in what appear to be very calculated ways. There is any number of complexities to the story, leading to a stunning conclusion. One of them concerns Shirley’s offstage school friend, Phyllis, who has been put into a “mental home.” Another concerns a scene set at a table in a café (remarkably inset above the stage’s main set, or the pub), between Mooney and Syd (Reece Shearsmith), who was originally an assistant in Harry’s hanging Hennessey in the opening scene, and is now conspiring with Mooney.
And even though hanging has been outlawed–and having performed 233 hangings in his time–Harry performs another one in the play’s climax in his own pub. Without revealing who the victim is, let me add that it might be whom you would expect it would to be–but not without surprising aspects to the occurrence. McDonagh is nothing, if not resourceful. He makes you spellbound and rapt, as he spins his web of subterfuge.
The sense of good, old-fashioned suspense is heightened by director Matthew Dunster, who also helps delineate the spot-on performances by the four remaining cast members–and regulars at Harry’s pub, with distinctive personalities–Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, John Horton, and David Lansbury. And then there’s the ongoing rain and lightning–with marvelous effects by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, for sound, and Joshua Carr, for lighting. Together, they add significantly to the scare factor of the evening.
Hangmen (extended through March 25, 2018)
Royal Court Theatre production
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including an intermission