Passers-by would have heard laughter coming from the Wee Red Bar mid-November, along with sounds of fighting, drunken shouting, and a plethora of Northern accents – which just about summarises Martin McDonagh’s most recent play Hangmen. This dark comedy about what the second-best hangman in Britain gets up to after the abolition the death penalty was put on by Theatre Paradok on the 14th, 15th, and 16th of November, with two sold out nights.
The student-led production erupted into life with a prologue set in the North of England pre-1969, when capital punishment was still legal. We meet Harry Wade (Adam Wu) doing what he does best – sending a man called Hennessey (Conor Quinn), still professing his own innocence, to the gallows. This unsettling first scene introduces two key elements of Hangmen: firstly, that homicide is just a job for a hangman, and secondly, that the play won’t spare you the grim details, but will still somehow make them funny. And it is funny: McDonagh’s dialogue is filled with endless wordplay and bickering, as well as a self-awareness that shocks listeners into a laugh. For example, using ‘babycham’ as a nickname for a menacing stranger, or the comedic relief figure of the drunkard making a sudden and cognizant comment about his own alcoholism.
Time skips forward to some point in the 1970s, and Wade’s new job. Post-abolition of capital punishment, Wade is found pulling pints for a group of soused regulars and the local police inspector (Clare Robinson) in his Oldham pub, which is to be the setting for the majority of the play. Here, Wade is bothered by journalists who want morbid tidbits about his past life as a hangman, and the story begins in earnest. The plot pivots around the ramifications of being a professional executioner: the morbid fascination from the public, what it’s like to be an ex-hangman’s daughter, the questions of innocence and guilt that linger years later. These questions materialise in the tall, dark, and questionable stranger, Mooney (Nikita Matthews), who visits the pub one day and causes disruption within the Wade family.
Wu’s portrayal of Wade was perfect, both a repellent and attractive character who the audience couldn’t help but watch. The performance of the whole cast was commendable: Quinn’s roles burst with energy, while Robinson played up the laconic laissez-faire attitude of a small-town policeman. The tension between Mooney, up to no good, and Wade’s daughter Shirly (Aisling Matthews), was genuinely anxiety inducing, with the audience just as intrigued as the naïve fifteen-year-old about what the southern stranger was going to say next.
While the cast certainly captured the audience's attention, the seedy atmosphere created in the Wee Red Bar was also down to the fantastic all-female production team led by director Helen Wieland. Lighting, staging, and, in particular, sound effects, all contributed to transporting the audience back into a 1970’s dingy pub. This was made all the more realistic by the large crowd who came to see the play, sipping their real pints as they watched some superb pretend pint downing. The sound of rain and the muttering of conspirators had the audience settle down into the second act immediately, drawn in by the story and the scheming characters before them.
With two sold out nights, it’s safe to say that the play was a success. Wieland’s glittering noose earrings encapsulate it all: Hangmen is a production dealing with dark themes but sparkling with its own particular kind of glamour. Intrigue, comedy, and, of course, hangings – Theatre Paradok’s Hangmen delivered with confidence.