The show revolves around Harry (David Morrissey), pub landlord and (depending on who you ask) second-best hangman in England. Most of the action takes place around the time that hanging was abolished (mid 60s), charting Harry’s response and his developing realisation of what it means for him.
On entering the auditorium, you are faced with a very bleak, minimalist set: a small prison cell. This set is short-lived, however. The set change is maybe a little clunky (it takes just a little too long), but I liked the intention of it, making the viewer feel like they’re going down – just like the condemned prisoners when they meet their end.
The main set is the inside of Harry’s pub, which was truly brilliant to behold. Perfect attention-to-detail, even with a woodbine cigarette vending machine on the wall! It had a real feel of a northern public house to it.
There is an additional set used at the beginning of the second act: a café, suspended above the pub. It’s truly a masterpiece – very little in the way of furniture (or even space!), but just enough to give it authenticity.
The lighting was very well done, in particular during the café scene as it occurs during a thunderstorm. I also enjoyed the fact that you could see someone’s shadow outside the pub window if their character went out for a smoke. Blasts of generic rock ‘n’ roll music played out in the transitions between scenes, again doing just enough to keep you in the era of the production.
The cast really make this play come alive.
David Morrissey is magnificent as arrogant hangman Harry – he plays this characteristic very well (it is something a lot of his roles seem to have in common), though he is adept at showing his character’s suffering & torment when he needs to.
Reece Shearsmith is perfectly cast as Syd. He begins the play as Harry’s assistant hangman – though when he is reintroduced later on in the first act, we discover he’s not quite as innocent as he looks… Shearsmith handles Syd’s stress-induced stutter with aplomb, really letting you inside his character’s mind. And only he could make the term ‘car keys’ side-splittingly hilarious! Two short words, one very long laugh from the entire audience.
You wouldn’t believe this was Bronwyn James’ professional debut. She is ballsy & confident as Harry’s daughter Shirley, with a great instinct for comedy. I’m excited to see where her career takes her, and will definitely look out for her future work.
But, for me, the real star of the show is Johnny Flynn (Mooney). As soon as he enters the pub you get the sense there is something mysterious & a little odd about his character – at first it comes across as charm, and just maybe the fact that he’s a southerner up north. However, as the play goes on the surface starts to scratch away, revealing Mooney’s unhinged nature. You’re never quite sure whether he’s telling the truth, and Flynn plays this to absolute perfection. He has fantastic chemistry with his co-stars, especially Bronwyn James; how the pair managed to keep a straight face as Mooney demonstrated that he knew what a curve was, I really don’t know… I’ve only ever seen him in the sitcom ‘Brotherhood’ before this, which is obviously a stark contrast! He is a gifted actor, with a talent for both comedy & drama – I enjoyed his performance immensely.
Hangmen is a wonderful blend of comedy & drama, with twists, turns & shocks. The cliffhanger at the end of act one is brilliantly set up & developed – and the ending is no less surprising. Its ambiguity & the consequences of Harry & Mooney’s interactions really do make you think about the efficacy of the justice system, and just how helpful capital punishment can ever be.
My verdict? A sharp, witty play full of star turns, complete with a moral conundrum. An absolute bargain and definitely on my transfer list.
Hangmen runs at the Royal Court (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs) until 10 October 2015. £10 day seats are available on Mondays online (9am) & from the box office (10am).