Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Matthew Dunster. Scenic and costume design by Anna Fleischle. Lighting design by Joshua Carr . Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph.
I say "unexpectedly," because McDonagh, the British-Irish playwright, is a master at combining the grim with the comic, as he so skillfully demonstrated with such works as The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and A Behanding in Spokane, all of which have had well-received Broadway runs. Hangmen itself comes to the Golden after a previous acclaimed production at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company in 2018, with a Broadway transfer initially planned for March 2020 (but, you know, pandemic). Seven of the 12 cast members are returning to their roles, either from the Atlantic or from a previous London production. And director Matthew Dunster has been at the helm from the get-go.
So what has gone wrong?
Things start out funny-disturbing enough with some literal gallows humor. The year is 1963. We are looking in at the moments before the execution of a convicted killer, a man named Hennessy (Josh Goulding), who would rather not be hanged, thanks, particularly since he insists that he is not guilty. "That's nowt to do with me," responds the hangman, Harry (David Threlfall), who is trying to keep everything moving along and on schedule. But just before the fatal drop, Hennessy manages to get in a final dig, one that will stick in the craw of his executioner for the rest of the play: "I'm being hung by nincompoops! They could've at least sent Pierrepoint!"
Now that stings. Because the self-important Harry is generally viewed as the second best hangman in the land, right behind and never able to catch up to the even more supercilious Albert Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson), about whom we hear much before we catch a glimpse of him later in the evening.
For now, however, after Hennessy is dispensed with by way of a conveniently dangling noose, the prison cell vanishes upward into the rafters and the calendar jumps forward two years. It is 1965, and much has changed, including the enactment of a law ending executions by hanging. The new setting (designed by Anna Fleischle, who also created the mostly working-class costumes) is a pub in northwest England. Harry is the proprietor and lives upstairs with his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett) and their "moody" teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French).
Harry and Alice are pulling pints for the regulars: Bill (Richard Hollis), Charlie (Ryan Pope), Police Inspector Fry (Jeremy Crutchley), and the elderly and rather deaf Arthur (John Horton), who is the source of a number of gags as he mishears comments. Joining them is Clegg (Owen Campbell), the local newspaper reporter who wants to interview Harry to get his reaction to the end of his career as a hangman.
But the more significant narrative element has to do with a mysterious stranger who appears in the pub. His name is Mooney (Alfie Allen, whom "Game of Throne" fans may recognize from his eight-year stint as Theon Greyjoy). At first, he seems friendly enough, even if he is warily viewed as an outsider by the regulars. But over several appearances, he shows himself to be alarmingly sinister. It seems he has been recruited to help with some vaguely defined revenge scheme cooked up by Harry's former and frequently ridiculed assistant hangman, Syd (Andy Nyman). Without revealing much more, it is safe to say that the hapless misfit Syd has picked the wrong ally here, as Mooney grows increasingly menacing and out of control.
There is a great deal of suspense tied up in our joining with the others in believing that Mooney poses a real threat. He is, indeed, at the center of the play's most genuinely suspenseful scene, one that is taken directly from the Hitchcock playbook.
Problematically, at least as the role is performed here, Mooney comes off less like the sociopathic killer in Frenzy than someone who is suffering from bipolar disorder. Coupled with this is a general inconsistency of tone across the entire production. Some scenes are being played "straight" (arguably the best way to present McDonough's style of dark humor), while others are being performed in a style that approaches silliness, as when Harry's rival Albert Pierrepoint puts in a most ill-timed appearance. This unblendable mix of styles pretty much deflates and flattens the deliciously written denouement.
Something is amiss overall. Hangmen does not work the way it did at the Atlantic Theatre Company, and there is more to it than the transfer to a larger Broadway venue. The play requires taut and cohesive directing and a uniformity of style to hold it together. Here, it seems as though the actors have been left to their own devices to figure out their characters and how best to perform them. It takes a lot of work to pull things back together after a break of four years, and an ensemble work like this requires exquisite timing and consistency, elements that are, alas, in short supply.