9 December 2015 (Wed), West End
Talk about gallows humor. This is the first new McDonagh play in London in a long while and the first to be set outside of Ireland. He is back to form and then some, scabrous and witty and outrageous. The opening execution scene, a representation of England’s last hanging in 1963, sets the jokey tone right away (to a man desperately protesting his innocence: “Now, now, if you’d just stop fighting us, you’d have been dead a long time ago”) until the shockingly realistic drop brings us to earth. The scene shifts to a pub in 1965 in English countryside after the abolition of capital punishment has made hangmen obsolete. That last hangman, now running the pub, is persuaded by a reporter to give his opinion on that decision, which he obliges with a bit too much bluster and an irresistible shot at a rival executioner. Following the article’s publication, they are visited by a mysterious stranger from London, which sets off a series of events that spin out of control.
The ending, when their method of dealing with the stranger is complete, resembles The Lieutenant of Inishmore in both content and effect. The dialogue is Ortonesque, while the situation and characterizations are Pinteresque, especially the young visitor. I wasn’t quite sure what the boy was doing in the bar in the first place, or why he was getting so involved with the former hangman’s daughter, or why he didn’t do more to correct the mistaken impression of the others toward the end given his precarious situation. Was he an angel of justice send to punish the former hangman? Just a plot device to raise points about capital punishment? The difference with The Homecoming was that the story even so was compelling and much more approachable.
The initial set in the execution room did a Sunset Boulevard levitation to reveal the pub, serving later as a midair diner. The dialogue was sharp as a knife, not afraid to reveal the casual racism and sexism and other delights of the mid 1960s (“I’m looking at a funny black chap in the papers”, “Africa’s full of monkeys”). It also lingers on the linguistic difference between “hung” and “hanged” (both of which feature in the show, as it happens). The fantastic panoply of characters including the hangman, his former assistant (who got into trouble for commenting on the large private parts of one victim – he gets a terrific sight gag in the second act), a more celebrated executioner who makes a memorable late entrance, the drunken customers, and the mysterious “menacing” (in his words) boy. David Morrissey was absolutely terrific as the hangman, as was Johnny Flynn in yet another distinctive performance. But the cast overall was hard to beat, benefiting from great direction that was straightforward and never gratuitous. Despite some improbabilities in the script, the dialogue and production made this a great show. The week has been gory, with another executioner in The Mikado and Foote’s on-stage amputation. And all comedies. Must be a British thing.