Review by: Sandra Jenkins
3 Mar 2016, 7pm

I am a great fan of the NT Live Screenings and so last night attended Hangmen which was being shown direct from the Wyndhams theatre in London. Not really knowing what the play was about, I was relying on the good pedigree beforehand of the screenings of Skylight and A View from a Bridge from the same theatre.

The atmosphere builds from the 7pm pre-show start with interior views of the theatre as the live audience gathers in the theatre and an introduction by Kirsty Lang offering a preview of other productions soon to be screened in over 2000 participating cinemas during the season, thus offering the cinema audience the great privilege of bringing accessible live West End theatre to local cinema audiences for a fraction of the cost and no travel inconvenience.

Hangman is set in the mid 1960s in the North of England and transferred from the Royal Court theatre, it is a dark comedy full of humour and menace with excellent award-winning set changes.  We are reminded of what life was like in the sixties, with casual racism, misogyny and a general lack of political correctness throughout the play. David Morrissey plays Harry Wade, the country’s second-best hangman (he boasts of 233 hangings) who has been forced into early retirement by the new laws abolishing capital punishment and is now a pub landlord. Harry is a bluff northerner who dominates his mouse-like assistant at work, his hangers-on and his wife and daughter at home.

After the initial prison scene, where a young man about to be hanged protests his innocence all the way to the gallows, we move to a time some two years later. We are now in Harry’s darkly moody sixties style pub in Oldham – where you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and spilt beer. Here, Wade holds court, insulting his locals – a motley and sometimes sycophantic group who seem to hang (no pun intended) on his every word and pronouncement.

Harry is being pestered for an interview by a baby faced local reporter for the Oldham Gazette and only reluctantly agrees when the reporter mentions he is also interviewing Albert Pierrepoint, his rival and the most well- known hangman in the country. Following the publication of the interview, a sinister young man arrives looking for a room. Peter Mooney, played brilliantly by Johnny Flynn, who injects both humour and menace into his Southern character, initially tries to charm Harry’s wife and then his daughter. Throughout the play you are left wondering about his true motives as he seems to quickly change from cockney with a quick wit (reminiscent of a charming Russell Brand), to being potentially violent and menacing. He is dismissed by Harry as a soft Babycham drinking southerner, but is able to run verbal rings around the bluff northerners. (In most places, he would have been given a good thump and sent on his way!)

Harry is at his bombastic best when behind his bar, giving his opinions and being generally obnoxious to his customers. His long-suffering wife, played by Sally Rogers, quite sensibly takes to gin to help cope with Harry’s Sergeant Major outbursts whilst his 15 year old daughter, who he accuses of being ‘moody and mopey’, ends up falling for the chatty potential lodger Mooney as he flatters her and manipulates her feelings.
What follows in the second act is at times both shocking and farcical as his aggrieved sidekick, Syd, plots revenge. There is on-going intrigue concerning the innocence of the man hanged in the opening screen and a murder being committed in Norfolk, could this be the Southerner’s motive for turning up in Oldham? When Albert Pierrepoint turns up at the pub, we see Harry as he truly is – a coward and a bully, seemingly terrified of Pierrepoint, who firmly puts him in his place as his whole world crumbles around him.

A superbly well-written play, with a brilliant cast.