Grotesque. Morbid. Hilarious. Dark, absurd, evocative.
Start with the last one. This is a period-conscious piece, even more than Martin McDonagh’s Irish-set works (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan, both recently and brilliantly staged). I affirm the atmosphere, because being twenty years older than Mr McDonagh I was a teenager in 1965, when Britain abolished the death penalty and closed down the condemned cells and execution sheds. No more would hangmen peer through spyholes to gauge the victim’s weight for a quick efficient drop: no more would cell doors swing open on the knell of 8 a.m. with doctor and Governor standing by. We knew about these things from childhood, from adult whispers and black headlines – Hanratty, Allen and Evans… Hangings got into our nightmares and into comedy: remember the opening frames of Dennis Price in the condemned cell, in Kind Hearts and Coronets? Later, I interviewed Albert Pierrepoint, most famous of hangmen, when he wrote his memoirs and admitted his doubts about the trade.
In period-perfect black comedy, Mcdonagh evokes that dowdy postwar world , assisted by Anna Fleischle’s designs – bricky condemned-cell, bleak seafront cafe, and the cosily grim Oldham pub hangman Harry runs (very Rovers’ Return: think of it as Execution Street). Pierrepoint, of course, ran a pub himself. The half-prurient, half-righteous comments of the regulars acknowledge how the noose haunted us. As did the dread of miscarriages of justice, innocents hanged.
In the opening cell scene Harry – David Morrissey, stridingly and stroppily Lancashire with a John Cleese moustache – has arrived to execute one Hennessy, who fights and protests his innocence and offends him by snarling “They could’ve at least sent Pierrepoint!”. Two years later we are in the pub on the day hanging is abolished, with behind the counter Harry’s wife (Sally Rogers) and plump, shy, mopey teenage daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James, in an endearing début) . A stranger turns up, Mooney: Johnny Flynn, again pitch-perfect as a long-haired 1960’s southerner, with a flippant menace in his manner calculated to wind up Harry. Indeed many of his lines sound as if Pinter had collaborated with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. He may or may not be the real murderer in the Hennessy case: the first anniversary of the hanging, we learn, saw a similar death in Lowestoft and today we fear something else will happen. Maybe to Shirley.
McDonagh’s is gift for rising menace and jagged, violent moments punctured by lines which make us bark with shocked laughter. For obscenity, cruelty, vanity, and insult can be – and here are – hilarious. Like the line about murders of women in Lowestoft because there’s nothing else to do except clock golf, or the dismissive “He couldn’t rape mud”. Dear oh dear. But we laughed, a lot. So no spoilers as to what happens, or who dies and how nastily. Morrissey is excellent as a man whose macho professional pride in killing with “dignity” conflicts with his vanity and love of fame, then cracks into terrified rage. Reece Shearsmith is a marvellously creepy Syd , assistant hangman and part-time perve. McDonagh actually introduces Pierrepoint himself during the climax, as an immense pompous bully, a rival cock-of-the-deathwalk: which is a wholly imaginary characterization, since the real man was quiet, thoughtful, and small.
It’s splendidly done under Matthew Dunster’s direction. But unlike McDonagh’s greater works, I’m not sure what it’s for. As a satire on judicial murder and wrongful executions it’s a bit late; as a reflection on male professional rivalry in the grisliest of trades it is darkly funny. As a cliffhanger ending in violence, it’s effective. But above all, it catches a moment in history, and a period. Maybe that’s the point. And OK, maybe it’s time the new generation was told that the ’60s weren’t all Mary Quant and psychedelia.
box office 020 7565 5000 to 10 October