Taut evening offers a blackly comic lesson about giving a man a rope
WHAT MUST it be like to be the number two at something — especially when you know you have no chance of being number one. The second tallest man in the world must surely have wondered how to knock the tallest man off his pedestal, not that he needs one. And so it goes that in Martin McDonagh’s pitch-dark comedy, Harry, a hangman, suffers from second best syndrome.
Hanging over him (sorry) is the knowledge that Britain’s most famous and prolific official executioner is Alfred Pierrepoint who has carried out an unassailable number of hangings compared to the total number of prisoners Harry has despatched — although Pierrepoint’s total does include all those Nazis he hanged after the Second World War, which in Harry’s book doesn’t really count. According to Harry, it’s much easier to hang Nazis so “an asterisk definitely needs to be put next to those.”
Most of the play is set in 1965. Hanging has just been abolished and Harry is getting on with life running his dingy Oldham pub with his brassy wife and sensitive daughter. In walks a stranger: well dressed, confident and, as he admits himself, somewhat menacing.
If that classic scene from many a cowboy movie — where a stranger walks into a room full of suspicion — were ever transposed from a wild west saloon to a north of England saloon bar, this is what it would look like. And just like a western, here the stranger’s identity and purpose become central questions.
Matthew Dunster’s production, meanwhile, is as taut as the rope we see Harry use in the play’s harrowing first scene. Set two years previously, before the abolition of hanging, it depicts the final moments of a young man’s life before he is hanged for a murder he denies committing. It’s a gripping opening made all the more potent by the sense of a serious injustice taking place. But then, if you are against capital punishment, a sense of injustice always accompanies execution scenes.
What, the play compels us to ask, is the connection between the condemned man and the stranger? On the issue of hanging, if McDonagh has a position, I’m guessing he is against. For even Harry toasts the end of hanging. But it’s never projected in a proselytising way. And whatever the motive behind McDonagh’s first play in 10 years (he’s been busy with screenplays such as In Bruges) it’s enough that he has written the kind of gripping thriller that’s increasingly rare in the theatre.
In retrospect, the plot has a hole or two, but it is peppered with twists that keep you guessing. And Anna Fleischle’s terrific design also keeps you off balance, chiefly with the way locations are changed, such as when an entire set is lifted out of view to reveal another.
David Morrissey, as the bullying Harry, terrifically captures the conflicting qualities needed to be a good hangman —a lack of conscience and a certain humanity — while The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith as Harry’s outwardly meek sidekick transmits something seething below the surface. The outstanding performance is by Johnny Flynn who, as the dangerous stranger with the gift of the gab, exudes a scene-stealing malevolent charm. And the entire evening is a confection wrapped up in delicious gallows humour.