A dark comedic play by playwright and film director Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, In Bruges), Hangmen focuses on an executioner called Harry Wade and his unique personal turmoil. Firstly, that he’s the second-best hangman in the country behind his famous rival, Albert Pierrepoint, and secondly that hanging has just been abolished. Further complications arise when a stranger arrives and creates difficulties for his wife Shirley and daughter Alice.
Taking place in Northern England during the ’60s, the setting is primarily a pub in Oldham run by the Wades, The Last Drop. Pint after pint is pulled and consumed by the proprietors and their patrons as the play progresses, providing a cheery but at times despairing atmosphere. The regulars at The Last Drop are a motley gang of opinionated, heavy-drinking and domino-playing folk who are always on hand to provide a comment or a toast, pints held aloft.
The style of comedy is typical Martin McDonagh: dark morbid tones, clever wordplay and literal gallows humour. A delight in shocking the audience persists with a heavy dose of swear words, disturbing euphemisms and crude language. One thing to bear in mind before watching this play is that some jokes may cause offence to some as they target women, minorities or national stereotypes, but they are in line with the era and setting of the play. This unabashed commitment to authenticity brings the characters and time period to life, supported by the well-constructed, detailed stage set which featured working beer taps and reverse-cut lettering displaying the pub’s name on the windows. Sitting in the audience, beer in hand, it felt like being in a pub watching events play out for real, hanging on every word of someone else’s drama without wanting to get involved.
However, as well as the authentic and memorable atmosphere, the cast’s superb acting is what really brings the performance alive as all the performers skilfully deliver humour, intensity and shock to the audience through their characters. Tony Travis stars as Harry Wade, providing an assured central role for the play to be built around. Proud, passionate, headstrong, durable but deceptively emotional, Travis excellently portrayed the conflict of conscience suffered by the executioner turned publican. Sophie Maybury was simultaneously resolute and caring as Shirley, deeply protective in her role as wife and mother. Adam Wells brilliantly played Wade’s former assistant, the stuttering and scheming Syd, who is tangled up in the events that impact the Wade family.
Overall, Hangmen was fantastically entertaining, providing a consistent stream of both laugh-out-loud moments and touchingly heartfelt scenes. With the play having been premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre and having since been performed at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre (as well as having a National Theatre Live broadcast and a stint at the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York), there were inevitably high expectations for Progress Theatre’s production and it definitely met those expectations if not exceeded them.