Taut evening of­fers a blackly comic les­son about giv­ing a man a rope

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THEATRE JOHN NATHAN

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.