Get us in your inbox



  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out Says

4 out of 5 stars

A savagely funny transfer of Martin McDonagh's hit comedy

This autumn the Royal Court premiered British-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s first play in London for over 10 years. Now transferred to the West End with most of the original cast in tact (but minus Reece Shearsmith), ‘Hangmen’ is a wry, late 1960s-set black comedy about a retired executioner, Harry Wade (played by David Morrissey and presumably named after real-life hangmen Harry Allen and Stephen Wade), that unfolds in the smoky lung of a Manchester pub run by this dour, upright local celebrity. There’s a lot of back-and-forth barroom banter, until an earlier execution – seen in the play’s brutal, arresting opening scene – starts echoing in the present.

Recommended: Read an interview with Martin McDonagh

We drop in on Harry on the day that hanging is abolished in 1965. A baby-faced newspaperman wants an interview. Any mention of ‘celebrity’ executioner Albert Pierrepoint gets Harry’s goat. The regulars slip into an easy hierarchy of knockabout male power. But matters turn uneasy when a cocky young southerner, Mooney (Johnny Flynn, the show’s star turn), starts to ingratiate himself at the pub. Unease turns to dread when Harry’s daughter, Shirley (Bronwyn James), goes missing and Harry’s former assistant, Syd (Andy Nyman, replacing Shearsmith and slightly dampening the comedy of the role) has suspicions about the culprit.

Savagely funny with hints of farce to sweeten the menace, ‘Hangmen’ lives and breathes its period (you might too: the smoke machine was in overdrive the night we attended), helped enormously by Anna Fleischle’s superb design. The writing feels ’60s in origins too, with echoes of Harold Pinter’s linguistic gamesmanship and Joe Orton’s gallows humour. For much of the past decade, McDonagh, after earlier successes like ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ and ‘The Lieutenant of Inishmore’, has put his mind to film, making ‘In Bruges’ and Seven Psychopaths’. There’s a hint of 1960s cinema in ‘Hangmen’ too. That partly comes via the northern kitchen-sink dramas of the decade, but it’s also there in how young Mooney nods to the discomforting modish charm of the likes of Malcolm McDowell: a sinister spotlight in the gloom.

 For all its talk of hanging and abolition, this isn’t a political play. It’s more about the past catching up with the present, and about power and pride among men. A hangman might wield power over his victim – but there’s always someone round the corner with a bigger, longer rope if he’s not careful. It’s a vicious, funny play, stained with nicotine and nihilism.

'Hangmen' will screen in cinemas on March 3 as part of NT Live

Dave Calhoun
Written by
Dave Calhoun


£10-£108. Runs 2hr 25min
You may also like
    Best-selling Time Out offers