'Have you read much Kierkegaard? Has that question ever been asked in Oldham?'
Taking the piss can land you in big trouble. Particularly in Oldham, and particularly in a pub whose landlord used to be a hangman. Mooney, the young southern interloper in Martin McDonagh's very funny new play at the Royal Court, finds this out to his cost.
McDonagh is an expert in taking the piss, having done so in a series of plays mocking the cliches of rural Irish drama. In The Cripple of Inishmaan, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, The Beauty Queen of Leenane and his other Irish plays of the late 1990s, he revealed himself as a windup merchant second to none. This time around, the action is set in the north of England and the target that London-born McDonagh aims at is the unreconstructed Northern male's sense of self-importance.
McDonagh has taken a longish break from stage writing (he has been mostly writing for the big screen) but Hangmen reveals that he has lost none of his talent for black comedy. His dialogue sings and his ability to tell a story while wrongfooting the audience, and balancing absurd comedy with violence, seems to have got better and better. His sense of stage rhythm and his mastery of dialogue and tension are on a par with those of Jez Butterworth, whose talents are very similar.
As in his Irish plays, McDonagh creates an individual self-referential world. After an opening scene showing the execution of a young man named Hennessy for a murder he says he never committed, virtually all the action takes place in the pub run by ex-hangman Harry Wade. I have never trusted a man who wears a bow tie every day, and Harry is one of them. David Morrissey incarnates this vain, authoritarian and self-deluding male chauvinist with such skill that we the audience feel immediately that we have known him all our lives -- one of life's minor despots.
Wade's hangman past defines him as more than just a publican. As a minor local celebrity he is consumed by resentment of the much better-known executioner Albert Pierrepoint, and after initially refusing to comment to a local reporter on the abolition of the death penalty, he gives into the temptation to give a self-aggrandising interview. He is, or thinks he is, a Northern 'character' in the mould of Gracie Fields, Betty Boothroyd or Geoffrey Boycott. And the regulars in his pub play along in sycophantic style. His wife Alice (a excellent and very subtle performance by Sally Rogers) sees through Harry but defers to him. Their too-chubby daughter ('our Shirley') is as fond of cake as Alice is fond of the gin bottle. All of these characters spring to life with a few deft touches.
Matthew Dunster isn't a household name as a writer or a director, but I've seen several plays which have come brilliantly to life in his hands. This one is no exception. The casting is impeccable, and the comic timing is wonderful. So is the design by Anna Fleischle.
McDonagh's plot is triggered by the arrival in the pub of a strange interloper from the south named Mooney, a silver-tongued, piss-taking southerner. Harry's feud with Pierrepoint, his treatment of his unloved daughter Shirley, and the increasing likelihood that Hennessy (clearly based on the real James Hanratty) was the victim of a miscarriage of justice are expertly woven together. Reece Sheersmith plays Harry's repulsive former assistant Syd while Johnny Flynn shows great flair as Mooney. There are echoes of Joe Orton, that other master of black comedy, in the way Mooney ingratiates himself and tries to manipulate Harry and his family.
This is not just a play about the death penalty and what it does, not just to those who are its victims, but to those who enforce it. It carries all sorts of other echoes, which are enhanced by the early 1960s setting. 1963 was the pivotal year when Britain began to shake off its post-war conformity and embark on a period of relentless social change, of which the end of the death penalty for murder was just one early symptom.
McDonagh's plays have their own enclosed logic, floating at a distance from everyday social reality and politics. It may be 1963 but the significance of the year isn't fully exploited; think of what John Osborne achieved by setting The Entertainer in 1956, the year of the Suez crisis. Harry Wade is ultimately humiliated, like Archie Rice, but his story lacks a wider dimension in which he becomes the symbol of a vanishing world. Mooney likewise falls short of becoming an archetype of the new, supposedly class-free Britain of the emerging 1960s, though there are echoes in Flynn's performance of the young David Hemmings in Antonioni's Swinging Sixties film Blow Up.
So anyone wanting a state-of-the-nation play of the kind the Royal Court loves won't find it here. But it's hugely entertaining. David Morrissey's performance is a gem and I won't be surprised if this production transfers to the West End.