Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Pierrepoint – The Hangman’s Tale
Festival: Edinburgh Fringe
Albert Pierrepoint is speaking. Taking us through his childhood and the rise of his experiences – at Nuremberg and over 400 hangings – to his subsequent falling out with the Home Office over a hotel bill, this is a remarkable piece of theatre. Told at a breathless pace we are privy to the thoughts and views of one of the most complex and fascinating characters of the twentieth century.
The script is delivered at such a rate that we are never left wondering about much apart from to marvel at the practised ease with which Martin Oldfield takes us on a truly remarkable journey. Someone who was one in a long line of family hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint takes such pride in his work without being oblivious to the difficulties it produces for him and for his wife. He is remarkably sanguine about the whole thing as well as illuminating the sang froid of a hangman he gives us an opportunity to see the toll the pressure took. There are moments of genuine gasping as he laughs about a botched hanging and relates the tales of times of high jinx and laughter in the pub whilst admitting the stress it placed upon his wife rather than upon him. Peter Harrison’s script misses nothing and manages to deliver a well rounded character whilst not ducking any of the difficult questions. We are given a character to judge; warts and all.
Martin Oldfield is a triumph. The rate at which he begins the tale should be a lesson for actors on learning lines, committing them to memory and then finding the truth within them to allow you to perform. It may be the economic climate but the number of one man shows that I have seen this year has been remarkable. Strictly speaking this is a two hander with Joel Daffron playing a condemned man in a cell not yards from Oldfield – the special needs adult, Timothy Evans. It serves as a constant reminder of why we are fascinated by Pierrepoint. At times I wondered if this device was necessary, particularly when the hanging was so brief but that was the point. A man waiting his fate whilst the world continued around and outside of him. Then someone comes in and in a matter of a minute, the deed is done. From the CC to the snapped neck. We hear the sound of a snapped neck. Then on bounds Pierrepoint with another witty story.
That is not to say this is a laugh a minute. Hardly so. Oldfield portrays Pierrepoint with detachment – just as the character demands. When the mask slips towards the end and we see Pierrepoint emoting it does jar. But again this is mainly down to the remarkable performance up until then.
The set is suitably claustrophobic, giving us the impression of a condemned man with the walls beginning to fold in upon himself. The interplay when it does happen between the two characters, believable and highly effective gives us more food for thought.
This is an exceptional piece of theatre that tackles one of the biggest topics of the twentieth century without fear or favour. This would be one of my must sees this year because it has theatre at its best – asking you to make judgements.