A CurtainUp London Review
Harry Wade (David Morrissey) is always seen as second best. His more famous counterpart is Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman. Dapper Harry Wade in suit and bow tie spends much of his life defending his reputation and telling anyone who will listen, how he is just as good as Pierrepoint. Of course Pierrepoint wins on the numbers game not just because Wade turned down the chance to go to Nuremberg to end the lives of Nazis found guilty of war crimes.
McDonagh's play opens in an authentic prison cell when James Hennessey (Josef Davies), protesting his innocence to the last, has been convicted of murdering a girl in Norfolk. Harry Wade executes his duties with efficiency but with no empathy for the scared, condemned man who clings to his bed to try to escape the hanging. A noose drops down, the man is tied and a hood put over his head, before the noose goes round his neck. A trap door opens and immediately the man drops to his death. Anna Fleischle's set rises and at ground floor level, a detailed tobacco stained public house is revealed in the North West of England.
It seems that second best hangman isn't a full time job and Harry used to be a part time bookkeeper, now he is a publican. The Lancashire pub is patronised by a sycophantic male crowd vicariously enjoying Harry's dark notoriety. Harry lives here with his wife Alice (Sally Rogers) and daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James). But there are two visitors today in 1965 because the government has announced the end of hanging in Britain. Seems the swinging sixties are at an end! One visitor is a local newspaper reporter, Clegg (James Dryden) charged with getting interviews with Harry Wade and Albert Pierrepoint on their reaction to the news. The other is an attractive young man with long blonde hair, and a curious line in conversation, Mooney, played by Johnny Flynn. The pints of beer swigging regulars treat Mooney with derision calling him Babycham man. Babycham is a sweet champagne perry drink not consumed by the overtly masculine.
Mooney charms the two women and seems to be looking for lodgings. I won't reveal any more of McDonagh's sophisticated plot except to hint that we cannot be sure what Mooney's motives are for meeting Wade's family. There is plenty to laugh at in the days before political correctness but overall we are relieved that people are no longer executed in this country.
Matthew Dunster's realistic production with its superb sets lets the majestic Morrissey dominate the stage and what presence he has! Self opinionated Harry Wade is still the most interesting man in the pub. Coupled with his assistant, the self effacing Syd (Reece Shearsmith) these performances are no less than brilliant. Johnny Flynn too gives an edgy, enigmatic and deceptively confusing side to Mooney. High up, a cafe scene on a rainy day between Mooney and Syd sets up some suspicions and these are being explored later in the pub, when the commanding Albert Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson) makes his entrance to take Harry to task for what was said in the newspaper article. We see Harry crumble, reputation and all.
I'm pretty sure that you could watch this complex play again and notice things you have missed on the first viewing. McDonagh's plays create speculation and menacing mystery which, like great drama, set your brain whirring. Welcome back!
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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