Review: Martin McDonagh's Hangmen Is a Fun Broadway Thriller, But Without the Menace
David Threlfall and Alfie Allen star in McDonagh's 2015 play at the Golden Theatre.
One of the happiest perks and biggest pitfalls of a theater reviewer's job is the opportunity to see off-Broadway shows again when they transfer to Broadway. It's always a pleasure to watch a show you like on a bigger stage, especially when you think it really deserved to move; and it's just as sad when you realize that a return viewing can't live up to your first time. Those are the feelings I wrestle with as I type this review of Martin McDonagh's Hangmen, which ran at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2018 and had the unfortunate timing of starting previews at the John Golden Theatre on February 28, 2020.
Thanks to some tenacious producers (including the late and still beloved Elizabeth I. McCann, to whom the run is dedicated) and a healthy heap of Save Our Stages funding from the government, Hangmen has returned to the Golden two years later to complete its run. I'm absolutely delighted that it's back and that more audiences will get to experience the pleasures of McDonagh's piquant script and the theatricalized anxiety of Matthew Dunster's production. As for me, I was a little disappointed. Knowing the twists in advance, I found myself to be waiting for them, and they weren't as fun the second time around.
We first meet Harry Wade (David Threlfall), England's No 2. Hangman (as McDonagh a phrase as any), in 1963, when he and his assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) are about to execute a man for a crime he says he didn't commit. Two years later, capital punishment has been outlawed, and Harry has begun slinging pints as the proprietor of a saloon in Lancashire.
On this fateful day, the pub is visited by Mooney (Alfie Allen), a mysterious charmer who dazzles the professional drunks with his curt retorts and starts making advances on Harry's 15-year-old daughter Shirley (Gaby French). When he suddenly snaps at Harry's wife Alice (Tracie Bennett) and talks Shirley into running away with him, we know there's going to be trouble. But what kind?
With its tackling of justice and revenge, and its questioning of whether redemption is possible for those among us who do bad things, this 2015 comedy (which premiered at the Royal Court before moving to the West End) thematically resembles McDonagh's film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, while sharing the same lusciously violent highpoints of his early plays The Pillowman and The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Filled with funny dialogue and a plot that keeps you on your toes, Hangmen flies by at two-and-a-half hours including intermission, but it is a little long for what the play ends up accomplishing, and McDonagh tends to let his characters talk in circles.
That's perfectly delightful when you can tell those doing the talking are obviously enjoying themselves. Threlfall is a more physically imposing figure than his predecessor, Mark Addy, was, and the humor that comes naturally from his authoritarian scariness works better for Harry's overall journey, particularly in the second act. Allen, on the other hand, delivers all of his lines like he's got a train to catch, and brings the wrong kind of energy to Mooney, playing him as a blank weirdo rather than a crackling livewire whose motives you're never quite sure of. Without the sort of uncomfortable psychosexual menace that Johnny Flynn brought to the role, the dynamic of the play is thrown way off and never quite recovers. (I can't speak to how Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens, who replaced Flynn for the 2020 Broadway run, played Mooney, though I would have liked to have seen him, too.)
Newcomers, of course, won't know that, and there is still a lot to savor. French (as Harry's "mopey" daughter) and Tracie Bennett (as the beleaguered wife) offer sensitive supporting performances, alongside a particularly hilarious turn from John Hodgkinson as Albert Pierrepoint, England's No.1 hangman and Harry's archnemesis. Plus, how can you not take pleasure in hearing McDonagh's pitch-black, politically incorrect humor on a Broadway stage in 2022?
And it's a delight to look at. In a house with a full fly system and backstage storage space, Anna Fleischle's incredible set, with a couple of unexpected and pleasurable transitions that transform a gray-walled prison cell into a Cheers-esque barroom, is even more miraculous on Broadway, and its shapeshifting nature is a true highlight of the season. Ditto her vintage costumes, Joshua Carr's smoky lighting, and the absolutely terrifying sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. If you're sensitive to jump scares, consider yourself warned.
For me, what Hangmen lacked was rewatch value. Going in already knowing the ending, waiting for the twists, and missing Johnny Flynn undercut the experience. That's on me, of course, and shouldn't be a deterrent for you. Broadway hasn't had a good thriller in a long while, and Hangmen fits that bill quite nicely.