Wyndham’s Theatre – until 5 March 2016
Let’s get it off our chests now: it will have you ‘in suspense’, it ‘goes with a swing’ there’s plenty of ‘gallows humour’, it’s a plot that ‘leaves you dangling’, jerking with ‘twists and turns’ and ‘a play with legs’ that moves at ‘breakneck’ speed and would be ‘criminal’ if you missed it …
Approaching Wyndham’s Theatre you are mown down with five-star quoted praise in faintly Leprechaunish gold and green but, appropriately, on hanging signs for Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, transferred from the Royal Court. “Outstanding”, “Hangmen is hilarious” “one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, GO SEE IT!”. Everybody’s on the same page – even my own organ Londonist told you it was ‘perfectly executed’.
My prison time is, so far, limited. As HMP Wandsworth’s interior designer for about half an hour in the 1980s even then, on the wings or when playing the prison’s cricket and darts teams I could tell the warders were every bit as rough and ready as the chaps behind the feyly-painted pink, yellow and mauve cell doors – done by the firm they’d just fired, I hasten to point out.
And this is the point McDonagh is making: that dispatching resentful criminals by violence may breed violence and resentment in their captors. It’s not new ground, but marrying it to the sort of glancingly racist and sexist Northern comedy popular on black-and-white TV is a bravura move.
Cast changes haven’t diminished the production at all – in fact replacing the obvious clowning of Reece Shearsmith with the more realistic character acting of Andy Nyman gives his character Syd the assistant hangman finer pathos and credibility as a man with a flawed plan of revenge: Syd’s downfall was that he once – just once – was observed inspecting the amply filled trouser area of what we can’t resist calling a ‘hardened criminal’.
Plenty of critics referenced Pinter, but we say the black comedy and completely irreverent humour points more to Joe Orton: when the ramrod retired second-most-famous hangman, now a publican, meets lazy, louche and cocky long-haired Southern lad, there’s more than a shadow of Entertaining Mr Sloane and the tension between David Morrissey and tremendous Johnny Flynn are what gives the play its spine.
So many of the broadsheets fell over themselves to draw comparisons with everyone from Synge, O’Casey and James Joyce to Pinter, Orton and Rattigan it’s as though they were saying “Jaysus, McDonagh why don’t ye just feck off and write something original?”
But he has.
As usual, @paulinlondon and I blocked the fire exits while huddling to make our just-out-of-the-theatre AudioBoom. Listen here, please.
Trivium: Researching my review I stumbled across, the remarkable Violet van der Elst – sometimes “Sweet Violet” sometimes “VD Elsie”, a gloriously eccentric campaigner against the death penalty who used to turn up to hangings swathed in sables and driven in a cream coloured Rolls Royce while hired vans played ‘Abide With Me’ and men in sandwich boards handed out her leaflets. Someone PLEASE turn this amazing life into a play or musical!
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