Review by Joanne Rymer
Martin McDonough’s first new UK play in ten years certainly didn’t disappoint, providing, as one would expect from him, a darkly comical and disturbing evening’s entertainment, this time on the subject of the acceptability of the notion of killing people as a punishment for killing people.
Through McDonough’s play we are given an insight not in to the criminals, but those whose job it was to carry out their final sentence. What type of person would do such a job and what effect would that perhaps have on their attitude to violence?
We begin by witnessing the hanging of a young man, Hennessey (Kurtiss Allen) terrified and strongly protesting his innocence. Hangman Harry Wade (William O’Neill) (inspired by real life hangman Harry Allen) has heard it all before many times and has a job to do, one he clearly takes great pride in. The play fast forwards two years to 1965 and more specifically the day on which hanging is abolished in the UK. The very efficient set change from prison cell to pub interior is impressive. The interior clearly expressing the mood of a 1960s northern pub which needs a little love and attention. The multi-level space was used brilliantly throughout the production.
The landlord of his own Oldham pub, Harry lords it over the chorus of partially deaf, alcoholic numbskulls who clearly view him as a type of celebrity, morbidly fascinated by his tales of death, as someone who has legally killed over 200 people William O’Neill is on fine form as Harry, regarded to his annoyance as the second greatest hangman after his rival Pierrepoint. He is arrogant, overly confident and his often offensive attitude is evident from the start. A stunning utterly believable performance.
Harry Wade’s long suffering wife Alice (Pauline Garland), is mostly tipsy and not far from the gin bottle totally bullied by her overbearing husband. When their daughter goes missing, she begins to suspect a brash young visitor from London, Mooney, may be involved. A great performance
The young journalist Clegg (Che Cullen) has come seeking an interview with Harry to mark the momentous day. Although he’s tight-lipped at first, the mere mention of Harry’s main rival Albert Pierrepoint (a real historical figure) sets him boasting about the 233 men he’s put to death. Harry comments (There would have been more if he’d signed up to help with the condemned from Nuremberg, but “it were Grand National week” at the time.) The intense interview between Harry and Clegg was stunning.
Into the bar walks a confident young man, Peter Mooney, (Mike Jones).As the mysterious southern stranger Mooney is at the heart of the play as much as Harry is. From the moment he appears he has your attention. There is just something about him a sense of a possible darker reason for his arrival, which may have repercussions for this Oldham group. A fine utterly believable performance.
There are fine supporting performances by all, but especially from Kevin Fishwick as Harry’s former assistant Syd, who clearly felt humiliated by Harry over the years, Arthur as the half-deaf pub regular and Emily Loughhead as Harry’s shy daughter Shirley. This was Emily’s first production for BDS and will be someone to look out for in the future. Then there is Keith Hill as Pierrepoint, the’ greatest hangman’ his effect on Harry is amusing to see.
One of the funniest moments of the play is when a certain character accidentally suffocates to death behind a drawn curtain. Which is a grimly farcical “de-noose-ment” and a sombre, terrifying farewell from the redundant agents of rough justice. Hilarious.
Hangman may not be a topic that you would immediately think you’d want to see a play about, but the quality of the writing and acting by BDS make this one stunning.
A truly excellent piece of theatre, well done to all concerned.