Review: Hangmen (Questors Theatre)

Harry Wade (John Dobson) runs a pub in Oldham. He’s also chief hangman, but a possible miscarriage of justice is about to shake up his life on the day capital punishment is abolished.

When a mysterious man from London, or thereabouts, comes in for a pint and a bag of peanuts, the comfy world of regulars and chit-chat (albeit one dominated by a noose and rope) is threatened.

Based on a number of real people and stories (including hangman Harry Allen and executed James Hanratty, ‘the A6 murderer’), this black comedy from Martin McDonagh doesn’t quite have the outrageous bite of his Irish plays (notably The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Beauty Queen of Leenane).

Production shot from Hangmen

I’m Oldham born and bred, so caught the attempts to replicate my accent and common sayings – some characters, notably Pierrepoint (Francis Lloyd) and a couple of the pub regulars, caught the cadence of our unique expressions.

Making Wade a publican in the town is a little problematic, though, as Albert Pierrepoint’s pub Help The Poor Struggler was itself in Oldham, albeit Failsworth way. The rivalry between the two professionals in both their fields of expertise is interesting, so artistic license can be forgiven.

Alice, Mrs Wade (Helen Walker) is the typical landlady, blousy, glam, and common. She suffers both her chatty husband and mopey daughter Shirley (Ines Walker), and is free and warm with her customers, without judgement.

This makes one act two scene particularly effective as her mask slips and she shrinks, scared, into the familiar bar fixtures. It’s a very effective performance. Also of note is Simon Higginson’s hard drinking and lazy policeman.

Production shot from Hangmen

The repartee between Wade and his four regulars plays like a dance macabre, laced with dark wit and the resignation you have when living in a dirty old town lashed with rain. Even a touch of seaside, like Formby, feels glamorous.

As Mooney (Emre Kose), a Pinteresque character who chooses his pauses and words carefully, disrupts and needles the status quo, the tension rises and a vein of disturbing bonhomie sits of the surface.

Hangmen (directed by Anne Neville) is very funny, especially in character observation and convincing one-liners that pepper conversation. There were a few line stumbles in this production but generally the acting was strong and the plot interesting.

McDonagh’s trademark shocks of violence are toned down a bit in this play, but its there, especially near the end of act two. Here, a point is also made about justice and the death penalty, which makes the show end on a satisfying note.

You can see Hangmen at the Judi Dench Playhouse, Questors Theatre, Ealing, until 11 June. Buy your tickets here.

Image credit: Evelina Plonyte