Courtyard Theatre, Chipstead
Hangmen, the first play by Martin McDounagh to be set in England, brims with dark humour and horror and gives a whole new meaning to the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
The curtain opens on a bleak scene, made more claustrophobic as only the far right of the stage is used. It is 1963 and we enter a condemned cell where a young man is protesting his innocence as he is cajoled towards the noose. Overseeing this horrific scene is Russ Gregory’s Harry Wade, dapper in his bow-tie and suit assisted by his stuttering assistant Syd Armfield (Robert Owen). Wade seethes at the condemned man’s last wish that the most famous hangman in the land, Albert Pierrepoint was presiding. “I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint,” he snaps.
This execution and Wade’s petty obsession with Pierrepoint sets the tone for the rest of the play.
The action jumps forward to 1965. An Oldham pub on the day capital punishment was abolished in England. The set re-creates the backstreet pub familiar to anyone who has seen classic Coronation Street episodes. A little dingy, devoid of frills, you can almost smell the stout. The only women in sight are Wade’s wife Alice (Croia Reilly displaying a brilliant Lancashire accent) and his sulky teenage daughter Shirley (Celeste Narywonczyk).
The motley crew of regulars – a mixture of sycophants and idiots and a world-weary chief police inspector who look on as Harry battles with Peter Clegg (Bradley Adams), a journalist seeking his views on the end of the hanging era and a cocksure smart-arse southerner Peter Mooney (Dan Jewell), who is seeking lodging and something else. He is slimy (“Does the sand go in your swimsuit?”) and sinister.
Hangmen is an early parody on celebrity, when the two hangmen are pitted against each other in column inches, Pierrepoint in a show-stealing cameo storms to Oldham, to confront Wade over his comments, demanding of the pub regulars “Does my hair smell? Meanwhile, a trussed up Mooney, suspected of being complicit in Shirley’s disappearance, slowly chokes to death behind the curtain. The final scene depicts Wade ruminating on his part in the opening hanging.
Hangmen is atmospheric and shines a light onto the casual, acceptable racism and sexism of the era. It depicts men hardened and immune to violence. The brilliant cast of 12, under Anne Gregory’s terrific direction, submerge the audience into this atmospheric and slightly-forgotten 1960’s world.
This dark and unexpectedly comic production is superb. This is another triumph for the Chipstead Players and I look forward to seeing what they do next.
The Chipstead Players next production is The Snow Queen. 11-15 &18-21 January 2023.