By Martin McDonagh
Directed by Matthew Dunster
Designer: Anna Fleischle
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London
Friday 25th September 2015 19.30
Hennessy – Josef Davies
Clegg – James Dryden
Mooney- Johnny Flynn
Bill – Graeme Hawley
Albert Pierrepointe – John Hodgkinson
Inspector Fry – Ralph Ineson
Shirley- Bronwyn James
Harry- David Morrissey
Charlie- Ryan Pope
Alice – Sally Rogers
Arthur- Simon Rouse
Syd – Reece Shearsmith
As the adverts say, this is Martin McDonagh’s first UK play for ten years. He said he had deserted the theatre for film, which I thought a tragedy after two of my favourite productions: The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.
Hennesy’s condemned cell. Harry standing right, Syd standing left.
Not an Irishman in sight here, but we got some Northern and Scottish jokes. McDonagh was born in London, though famed for his Irish plays. We start in the condemned cell of Hennessy in 1963, convicted of murdering a girl in Lowestoft and about to be hanged. Or hung, as he says, but he gets his English corrected. He’s hauled protesting his innocence to his death at the hands of Harry Wade, the last hangman in England. Harry dresses up with a bow tie for the event, and is aided by Syd, assistant hangman. Hennessy protests that he’d rather have Albert Pierrepoint to hang him (Pierrepoint was the real official hangman in the 1950s). An insult too much for Harry, who lives under the shadow of Pierepoint’s fame. Hennessy drops to his death. The scene is powerful, violent but full of black comedy.
Harry & Syd
The scene changes totally, by a brilliant piece of mechanical set changing that I’ve never seen done before (no spoiler), and we are in 1965 in Harry’s pub in Oldham, a second completely realistic set with working beer pumps. Harry runs it with his wife, Alice. The regulars consist of a bunch of crawlers and sycophants (Bill, Charlie and the elderly somewhat deaf Arthur), plus the enigmatic Chief Inspector Fry. A newspaper reporter, Clegg, has arrived from Manchester, bent on getting Harry to comment on the abolition of capital punishment, passed into law that day. Throughout Arthur is a commentator as he has no filter between brain and mouth and says exactly what he thinks.
The pub: Inspector Fry standing left, Money sitting with beer. Regulars in background
A young man, a Southerner, Mooney arrives. He reminds me of Malcolm McDowell as Travis in If …. and Oh, Lucky Man, or perhaps Paul Nicholas in Just Good Friends. He has that Paul Nicholas glibness. He suffers the Southern jokes (what do you want, Babycham?) that I got used to in my university days in Yorkshire … though they missed the obligatory talcum powder and after shave references that followed. Moody is “menacing” as he likes to think, though Syd calls him creepy. As an aside, I don’t know what came out of those beer pumps, but Mooney had to down three pints of it within ten minutes. Even with coloured water, that’s really hard. A lot is consumed by all. They must have easier access to loos backstage than you get in the auditorium.
Mooney (Johnny Flynn)
The story revolves around Harry and Alice’s plump daughter, Shirley, aged fifteen, who spends her day moping. Mooney arranges to meet Shirley at the station, and take her out, first to visit her friend in mental hospital, then to the seaside. Mooney also asks for lodgings at the pub, and goes into total rage when Alice checks references and he screams at her and storms away. Syd, the assistant hangman turns up. They discuss whether Hennessy was innocent. Exactly a year after his execution there had been an identical murder at Lowestoft.
Alice (Sally Rogers) and Shirley (Bronwyn James)
In Act two, a third complete realistic set appears, a cafe with red formica tables, suspended above the pub. Mooney meets Syd in the cafe. They know each other. Syd has a (hilarious) grudge, or rather two grudges, against Harry … no joke spoilers. It is the second anniversary of the execution.The intent was to wind Harry up over a possible killer who had gone free, and that the wrong man had been hanged. Then Shirley goes missing. Suspicion falls on the menacing – or creepy – Mooney.
Back to the pub and a scene of astonishing violence as Harry tries to extract information. At a crucial moment, Albert Pierrpointe turns up. I’m not going to tell you how it is all resolved, but I will say that the big surprise twist was predicted by both of us a long way ahead, because we have seen the Lieutenant of Inishmore. This is considerably less violent though. Even so, I don’t know how they did the hanging scene(s). One important point might just be borrowed from The Ruling Class.
The play has a lot to say about guilt, innocence and justice. Hennessy’s name even sounds like Hanratty, a famous miscarriage of justice case. It uses the cliches … hanging’s too good for them, they never re-offend. The self-justification between Harry and Syd at the end sums it up. We expected a brilliant black comedy from McDonagh and we got it. My main hope is that the renewed attention after Hangmen triggers a spate of new productions of his plays.
Harry, Syd and regulars
The comic timing is split second from a tremendous cast.The jokes flow thick and fast. My laughometer records the biggest audience laugh as Mooney’s quick aside which finishes ‘This is not Scotland!’ Physical casting is very good too. In the prison scene, Harry towers over the guards, governor and doctor (the doubling is not credited, but only Hennesey is not doubled). Harry is much taller than Syd, and this continues into the pub where his physical height dominates. Then when Albert Pierrepoint arrives, he is far taller again and towers over Harry.
The lead roles are Harry (David Morrisey) and Mooney (Johnny Flynn), both outstanding performances. Ralph Ineson was so memorable as Inspector Fry that we were sure we’d seen him on stage this year, but checking his theatre credits, we hadn’t. His huge TV and film list, includes ‘The Office’ and it was that brief appearance which had been so indelibly stamped! I guess we have watched it a lot.
QUIBBLES At times we had a little trouble hearing Alice’s words clearly, but I put that down to accurate Lancashire accent and the fact that we haven’t watched Coronation Street since 1965. There’s an Irish hanging “so” (= then) at the end of one line, which does not happen in Lancashire accents.
PROGRAMME As before here, only £3 and you get the full playscript book with the cast and programme details at the front as this is the premiere of the play. The book has £9.99 printed on the back! A bargain, and fun to read later. I think there were added “fuckings” here and there.
THEATRE We only seem to go to the Royal Court every couple of years, and as the leading innovator of the 50s and 60s there is something in the fabric of the place. It’s a long way from the Circle to the loos. In the front row of the circle, the leather seats are narrow and my knees were painfully compressed … rather like the front row circle at the Theatre Royal Bath. Unusually uncomfortable, but it may be only that row.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
Martin Mc Donagh