Kate Johnstone reviews a Martin McDonagh play from the Royal Court Theatre.

Martin McDonagh has spent the last 10 years writing screenplays, notably the acerbic and foul-mouthed In Bruges (2008), and Seven Psychopaths (2012). Now he returns to where he started, with a new play, Hangmen.

The action mainly takes place in 1965, on the eve of the abolition of hanging. Harry Wade (David Morrisey) has been forced to retire from a career in execution, where he was less than ably assisted by Syd (Reece Shearsmith). To Harry’s chagrin, he is now running a grubby pub in Oldham. Commanding yet pompous in his dickie-bow, he is master of this significantly reduced domain, with a coterie of hangers-on who are only there for the beer. Into this backwater strides Mooney (Johnny Flynn), a cocky cockney who unbelievably wants to rent a room above the pub. He’s up to something, but what?

It’s a delight to watch what unfolds. The one-liners come thick and fast – Harry lecturing about why hanging is the best form of execution (‘The guillotine’s messy, and French’) and characters are swiftly developed (Mooney’s insistence that he is only ‘vaguely menacing’). But as the action becomes darker, the laughing becomes more horrified. The second act is pure Joe Orton: there’s an authentic 1960s vibe, pivotal roles for domestic props (a chair and a curtain feature heavily), and a deeply unpleasant undertone which could lead anywhere.

It’s perhaps this anticipation of where we might be going that leads to the loudest laughs when the truth is revealed – an example of the evolutionary perspective on humour developed byHurley, Dennett and Adams in their 2011 book Inside Jokes (see the special edition on humour for this and more). If humour is your area of interest, Hangmen offers a great opportunity for some field work. For the rest of us, it’s just a brilliant night out.

Royal Court Theatre, London until October 2015, and then Wyndham’s Theatre, London from 1 December 2015 to 5 March 2016

- Reviewed by Kate Johnstone who is Associate Editor (Reviews)

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