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Brighton Year-Round 2022


New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Dark Comedy, Drama, Fringe Theatre, Historical, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre Upstairs


Low Down

Directed by Pat Boxall, with Set Design by Michael Folkard. Set Construction Simon Glazier, George Walter, John Everett, Monika Schüttbacher, Jean Porter, Lighting Design Strat Mastoris, Costume Richi Blennerhassett, Cathy Waring. Sound Design Ian Black.

Light Operation Alex Epps, Esmé Bird, Sound Operation Steve Coulson. Dialect Coach Frank McCabe, Props Bryony Weaver, Gaby Bowring.

Production Manager Tamsin Mastoris, Stage Manager Erin Burbridge; DSM Carol Croft, ASM Marion Drew. Poster/Programme Tamsin and Strat Mastoris, Strat Mastoris. Publicity and Marketing Ceiri O’Douglas, Photography James Michael Maltby, Strat Mastoris, Video Trailer Moth Media, Cartoons Martin Gordon, Health and Safety Ian Black.

Till April 30th


It’s as if somewhere around 2015 Martin McDonagh and Jez Butterworth did a swap. Whilst Butterworth wrote a huge-cast Irish play, The Ferryman, premiered in May 2017, McDonagh assembled an equally huge (sixteen) cast and eighteen months earlier set his Hangmen in Oldham.  They’re both set in the past too. And both bid to be masterpieces.

Admittedly McDonagh’s occasionally set works outside Ireland whereas Butterworth hasn’t essayed anywhere but England till The Ferryman courted murmurs of transgression. Butterworth doesn’t colonise Ireland with much of his laconic humour, but McDonagh brings all his to bear on the north, with southern mockers. It’s a mordantly funny play. They deal with summary death differently too.

NVT have mounted two McDonagh plays in three months; part of an ongoing affinity with Irish works that here score two hits.

Hangmen cruises towards small classic status. Is it justified? Using the Theatre Upstairs director Pat Boxall. makes the most of the differently-proportioned play with its prequel cell scene and pub, a masterly naturalism designed by Michael Folkard with a dowdy cream and greenish-walled pub set at angles to the stage, with a full bar, some chairs stage right and left; and a door stage left.

The play’s no simple re-examination of period attitudes, but a refraction of fresh techniques turned period in exploring second-best hangman, Martin Malone’s Harry Wade. The Ortonesque – both farce and character – explodes at the prologue’s hanging in 1963 of the luckless ‘I’m innocent’ Hennessey (a fine cameo from Harry Morris), a black comedy where ‘if you let go you can die more quickly’, and two years later in the main action of 1965, embodied in the  wannabe-lodger-and-menacer Mooney.

The brief 1963 scene alone features Guy Dixon and Louis Ryan as almost-mute guards, Andy Bell as a wholly mute Governor in his first role, Tristan Wolfe’s fearful Doctor, obeying the hangman in everything. There’s virtually no doubling; a kind of luxury.

Malone’s Harry struts alpha-male for most of the length, dominating ex-colleague Scott Roberts’s Syd he’d had dismissed for mentioning the length of a gangster’s penis, and even the local Inspector (small) Fry (Nick Reason) as well as his pub’s regulars, kow-tow.

These three other regulars, Jason Lever’s alcoholic but shrewd Bill, Tobias Clay’s peacemaking but sometimes voluable Charlie and John Tolputt’s magnificently deaf and foot-in-mouth Arthur are chorus to Wade, acting in concert.

In a different way, so’s Jack Dean’s amiable but shrewd newspaperman Clegg, also bewitched by Wade but happy to play his game and get a scoop. He affords a clean-cut contrast to Mooney.

Reason’s Chief Inspector visibly sheds authority from his initial attempts to browbeat Nikolas Balfe’s Mooney, to being treated with contempt by Wade. It’s a fine-grained degrading. Roberts as the pathetic, stuttering Syd exhibits a masterclass of approval-seeking, both from Wade and Mooney, as we discover, with more resources than appears. Roberts makes you flinch mesmerically as he projects Syd’s spaniel-like fearfulness and calculating streak.

It’s how this culture fans out into family, and the consequences, that render layers of sexist and racist assumptions McDonagh mainlines into the narrative. Nikki Dunsford, Harry’s bored wife has reason to suspect Harry’s best erections were with a noose; Dunsford exudes a calm critical resignation, centring some of the action and enjoying a flirty moment with Balfe’s Mooney before things sour.

The couple’s big daughter Shirley is an eventually explosive Laura Scobie who bellows out her shyness, interested in one thing just as men are, she later confirms. From her initial ‘mope’ mode to parents, and hunched response to Balfe’s Mooney, Scobie blossoms magnificently, all mouth and declamation.

Harry’s interview damning rival Pierrepoint might impress locals, but not his family. It doesn’t impress Pierrepoint either.

Enter the Pinter-tinged Ortonesque of Mooney’s two-dimensional ‘menace’ as he likes to impress on the luckless assistant hangman Syd. But Balfe’s bravura of braggadocio is a truly cocksure performance and gives Mooney a dimension.

As sinister charmer Balfe gives Mooney enough rope by insinuating he might be the murderer of the woman Hennessey was hanged for, and has now kidnapped Shirley. His lies might come back to choke his floridly suggestive arabesques.

The first Act seems a touch formulaic, quoting 1960s techniques and dramatists with little spin; and McDonagh’s given Wade little amplitude here but to prove the gangster isn’t the biggest prick: though how the men measure themselves against Wade and he to Pierrepoint signals much of the play’s drive and wit.

Malone’s magnificent front is a little confined till the second half where anger, grief, loss of control and his profession play over his character to more affective ends. Malone’s response is to show this subtly, not allowing the front to crack. So his actions speak louder.

The second act’s three great strokes, bar the opening, transform the drama to something masterly. A threatened hanging of Mooney (gotta have a gimmick, here it’s hanging); then Pierrepoint’s entry which complicates interrogation since Mooney’s shrouded by a curtain. Pierrepoint drags the chair further and further away, refuting the inference that his hair smells of death; all including Harry cower before a bigger bully to sniff it. Then the coup of a great tirade from an as unexpected quarter as Pierrepoint.

Bell returning in this role isn’t as cued with the thunderstroke of the original Royal Court production, transferring to Wyndham’s. The grand guignol of that is missing and Bell needs to make his presence felt without it, which he does. The original production boasts a more McDonagh-like menace, but Bell and Boxall have returned to the text and arguably find less reach-me-McDonagh stereotype in it. Bell makes his relatively brief appearance tell though.

Lighting by Strat Mastoris is as ever consummate, confined here to the cell scenes and pub bar-light. Costumes by Richi Blennerhassett and Cathy Waring are superbly in-period from Warder uniform through the different ties bow and regular, of the hangmen and the northern clobber of the regulars and the smooth  mid-sixties tailoring of Mooney. Sound design by Ian Black enjoys a particularly vivid thunderstorm or two, torrential rain (nice touches too as the cast duck in from it) and period music.

All these second-act coups are masterstrokes, though Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World also comes to mind, as well as Butterworth’s Mojo and proleptically The Ferryman; and a bit of The Long Good Friday for the hanging. If The Ferryman has to be a tragic masterpiece or fail (it doesn’t) then McDonagh’s way with violence is more equivocal, more troubling. It’s why Hangmen doesn’t settle too comfortably. That dark puckishness recalling Synge is more knowing, more rooted in tragic laughter.

Malone does get the opportunity to nuance in the second half; so does wife Dunsford eyeing her husband in a new, even more unsavoury light. But the end when Harry lets go of his true profession, is true tragi-comedy. ‘I miss it’ he cries, touches more than Orton would: McDonagh’s distinction resonates in a manner peculiar to him alone.