Marking his return to the theatre after 10 years away making hit films such as In Bruges, Martin McDonagh's new play Hangmen is a chamber piece set over two nights in an Oldham pub run by Harry (David Morrissey), the second best Hangman in England, who is being interviewed by a young reporter Clegg (James Dryden) for the Oldham Gazette, about the abolition of hanging and the death penalty in 1965.
From the outset, when we see Harry perform a routine hanging of a soul pleading his innocence alongside his assistant Syd (Andy Nyman), McDonagh does not hold back in depicting the broad strokes of the characters promptly. Harry is a man who likes his work, is respected and proud of the service and identity the work provides, whilst Syd is beneath Harry and will start there in stature and class.
The play has a real rat a tat about the dialogue, a back and forth usually seen in 1930s Screwball comedies, you have to keep your wits about you otherwise you might miss some information but McDonagh is always gracious enough to stop and take a breathe with a well placed shit or fuck to halt proceedings.
The introduction of Mooney (Johnny Flynn), an upstart Londoner into the pub looking to rent a room out, prompts a shift in tone from light to sinister as Mooney may well not be the lad about town people think he is.
The play at 2 and a half hours long with an interval is breezy and flies by, this is in part thanks to the writing ably helped by the stellar cast throughout lead by Morrissey's strong central performance, his arc from begrudging self-satisfaction to acceptance of his changing role in a changing time is delicately handled by such an accomplished actor.
Flynn as Mooney plays him with the right menace and needle as the diffident outsider with a hint of Malcolm McDowell from If... and A Clockwork Orange in there, and while Nyman as Syd does do meek and weak well, this reviewer would have greatly liked to have seen Reece Shearsmith's performance where laughs and pathos would have mixed better.
And a special mention to Simon Rouse as half-deaf Arthur who gets the cheap laughs as part of the three man Greek chorus of Harry's regulars, and brings the house down with an innocuous line 'At least Shirley is safe, that's the most important thing', a line of heartfelt intent but misguided context.
Matthew Dunster's direction is tight and the use of the conversation between Harry and Clegg where they look out to the audience instead of each other is handled well, and the set design and period detail by Anna Fleischle is pitch perfect to a tee from Harry's three piece suit to Mooney's pencil tie.
Stop hanging around and go see Hangmen before its life is cut short.
Hangmen is at the Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road and is a Delfont Mackintosh Theatre.