November 14, 2023
Review: Gamm's 'Hangmen' Will Make You Laugh and Gasp
Will Demers READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Northern England, 1965: The death penalty by hanging has been abolished, and hangman Harry Wade (Steve Kidd) has nothing to say to the press about this; after all, he's got a pub to run with his wife, Alice (Karen Carpenter), as well as care for teenage daughter Shirley (Abigail Milnor-Sweetster). He is surrounded by a motley crew of regulars who pry into his psyche as to what the abolishment means to him, which is clouded by Wade's inflated opinion of his job's place in history. But one eager young reporter, Clegg (David Ensor), will get the scoop, and those involved will never see things the same as before.
"Hangmen" is British-Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh's darkly funny play about two men grappling with a major change in their lives, and the consequences of their actions afterwards. The play features a cast of fictional characters (save one): Albert Pierrepoint (Jim O'Brien), who was a 25 year veteran as a hangman and ran a pub with his wife in Lancashire, England, and was considered the country's foremost hangman, much to Wade's chagrin. McDonagh gives these two characters some history as having briefly worked together, but Pierrepoint is far more celebrated. Harry retaliates by dissing Pierrepoint to a local reporter. As the patrons muse about his comments, a smiling, yet menacing, stranger, Mooney (John Hardin), appears, in search of a room. At this point, things get weirder for everyone, especially Shirley, Wade, and Alice's shy and perpetually mopey offspring.
McDonagh is both a successful filmmaker (Academy Award winner for his short film "Six Shooter" in 2004, and director of such indie hits as "In Bruges" and "The Banshees of Inisherin") and playwright, with "Hangmen" having premiered in London in 2015 before heading to the West End. Eventually opening in previews in 2020 off-Broadway, its premiere was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic and had its actual Broadway run from April to June of 2022. At the Gamm this production is directed by Artistic Director Tony Estrella, with set design by Jessica Hill Kidd, costume design by Katie Hand, and dialect coach Candice Brown, as there are Northern English accents aplenty here. Estrella has picked some new talent here: Ensor and Milnor-Sweetser are joined by Bruce Kaye as Arthur, a nearly-deaf older patron; John Cormier as Charles, who repeats everything said so that Arthur doesn't miss out; and Jack Clarke as Bill, a divorced alcoholic who seems to have no original opinions of his own. Ensor is great in a double role, Kaye is flat out hysterical, and Cornier and Clarke are great additions to this cast.
McDonagh's dialogue can make the darkest of subject matter seem like commonplace occurrences; Kidd offers a matter-of-fact account of his character's vanished career, as if hanging criminals were akin to operating an elevator. He is also adamant about being the best hangman, not second to that Pierrepoint guy. Carpenter gives a heartfelt performance as his put-upon wife, but newcomer Milnor-Sweetser makes a fantastic debut as Shirley, as she imbues the shy teen with pathos and some of the funniest moments in the second act. Jim O'Brien makes a grand and confident Pierrepoint as he tries to take Wade down a few notches, and makes his rather small role fascinating to watch. Hardin, who appeared in last season's "Bad Jews," is a wonderful addition to this cast as the creepy Peter Mooney, and Gabriel Graetz' Syd will leave you giggling at his very funny antics.
"Hangmen" is a snapshot of a small town in Northern England's past. You'll laugh out loud, and you may very well gasp as well, but you'll come away enjoying every minute.
"Hangmen" is running through November 26th at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick, RI 02886. For information or tickets call 401-723-4266 or visit www.gammtheatre.org.