Sunday, 15 December 2019

Black humour’s on tap in this comedy of capital punishment

Black humour’s on tap in this comedy of capital punishment

Hangmen | Progress Theatre, Reading | Thursday, November 7

A COMEDY about capital punishment sounds incongruous, but Steph Dewar’s production of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen gives the audience plenty to smile about.

The play begins by confronting the audience with the fear of a condemned man, as Hennessey (Ruaridh Watt) faces death by hanging whist desperately proclaiming his innocence.

Time moves on to 1965 and capital punishment has been abolished.

Executioner Harry Wade (Tony Travis) and his wife Alice (Emma Sterry) live a contented life running a pub — wittily named “The Last Drop” — frequented by a staunch group of regulars keen to hear Harry’s stories of his gruesome career.

Cub reporter Clegg (Ruaridh Watt) is also trying to elicit Wade’s views of capital punishment, in the light of abolition.

Daughter Shirley (Sophie Maybury) is known to be moody, but life is turned upside down when she goes missing, shortly after Alice has been approached by a potential lodger, the mysterious Mooney (Owen Goode).

Martin Noble’s authentic set transports us to a Sixties boozer where drinkers Charlie (John Goodman), Bill (Peter Knightley) and Arthur (Chris Pett) are exchanging a few wisecracks over a beer, together with a copper, Inspector Fry (Peter Chamberlain).

Mooney’s arrival, as an over-confident southerner in an Oldham pub, stirs up trouble and menace.

Goaded by his erstwhile assistant Syd (Adam Wells) Harry is forced to revisit the possible innocence of Hennessy — and if Hennessey was not responsible for the Lowestoft murders, might some suspicion hang over the surly Mooney, who has connections with the East Anglian town?

Those assembled put two and two together to make five and the play tumbles into dark farce as, fearing for his daughter, Wade takes the law into his own hands.

Hangmen raises important and unpalatable questions about justice, guilt and innocence, but nevertheless continues to be funny. The comic tone goes a long way to dispel — or possibly side-track — any sense of responsibility around execution.

The topsy-turvy nature of this world is captured by Wade’s ongoing and bizarre competition with prolific hangman Albert Pierrepoint (Mark Taylor) as to who is the “best” hangman.

Pierrepoint’s appearance in the pub brings surreal comedy as he insists that those around him sniff his brylcreemed hair.

With faultless direction and impressive performances all round, Hangmen makes for perfect viewing if you relish a bit of dark humour.

Until Saturday (November 16).

Susan Creed

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