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Mostly taking place in grim prisons, the last executions in the United Kingdom were by hanging. They lasted until a final suspension of the practice in 1965 (yes, as recently as that), thus ending the career of professional hangmen like Alfred Pierrepont, who is said to have executed some 500 condemned souls before retiring to run a pub in Lancashire, spending his later years pulling pints rather than breaking necks.
Pierrepont, who really existed and even wrote a memoir, was the inspiration for the deliciously gripping Martin McDonagh thriller, “Hangmen,” which kept Broadway hanging for two years after the COVID-19 closure scuppered its planned New York bow in the spring of 2020. The creepy show, a walloping hit in cynical London, kept its collective body on ice and now is swinging for attention in this crowded spate of spring openings. It opened Thursday at the John Golden Theatre.
It’s a fabulous offering — a throwback, really, to the heyday of juicy, creepy London imports by McDonagh (”Pillowman”), Conor McPherson (”Shining City”) and Jez Butterworth (”Jerusalem”). Meticulously directed by Matthew Dunster and designed within an inch of its life by the brilliant Anna Fleischle, it offers up dextrous plotting, sardonic satire, subtle observations about the gray northern life and, above all, an unforgettable central character in Harry, a hangman who also loses his job and who also decides to run a pub in Oldham, Lancashire.
He might be set behind the bar, but his long rivalry still festers with Pierrepont, a minor character in this play. Harry is played here by David Threlfall, in a towering, relentless, impossibly verbose performance so intimidating that you might well dream about him hanging you in your sleep. Caveat emptor.
Drawing from the rich British dramatic tradition of the arrival of a mysterious stranger into an insular community, “Hangmen” focuses on the arrival of a cherry cockney chap (Alfie Allen, who was Theon Greyjoy in “Game of Thrones”) to Harry’s pub, where he menaces the landlord’s wife (the terrific Tracie Bennett) and daughter (Gaby French, evoking a British version of Juliette Lewis in “Cape Fear”).
The whole pub, filled with a motley crew of sycophants, wonders who he might be, as, I guarantee, will you.
Is he a relative of someone Harry hanged looking for revenge? A reporter looking for a story? A devil come to take Harry’s soul? All three of those options and plenty more beside remain on the table throughout this play and I’ll keep shut on the truth, finally revealed in a way that will, I swear, turn you into the sort of goop you typically find on the head of a foaming pint of bitter.
McDonagh, who has had enough success not to have to answer to anybody, is having fun saying things few in the theater even dare to whisper these days, of course, and that will delight those who don’t look for moral earnestness or a neatly tied thematic bow to accompany their precious nights out on Broadway.
But he’s also got plenty of stuff to say. As I watched I variously pondered the toll all forms of societal punishment take on those working-class functionaries who do the state’s business, the arbitrary nature of justice, our ever-amazing ability to carry on in the face of brutality in the air. You might also find yourself thinking about what kids have to deal with when they are dealt the hand of egotistical, narcissistic fathers, the arbitrary nature of when we’re born, the horror of death. I could go on and on.
I should note I spent my childhood living about 5 miles from where this play is set, albeit a few years later. I had a great dad. I thought about him all night long.
Could have been stuck with this guy. Shudder.