LONDON — Martin McDonagh has been sharpening his hooks. Not the kind that one of his homicidal characters might use to flay the flesh of an enemy (or relative), but the sort that a cunning dramatist plunges deep into a theatergoer’s attention and refuses to release until the final curtain.
“Hangmen,” which runs through March 5 at Wyndham’s Theater here, is Mr. McDonagh’s first play since his distracted, disappointing “A Behanding in Spokane” opened and closed on Broadway six years ago. But any worries that the spellbinder who created the “Leenane” trilogy and “The Pillowman” might have lost his gift for holding an audience in his demented thrall are vanquished almost as soon as “Hangmen” begins.
Death by execution — as practiced by one of the play’s title characters (played with delicious self-importance by David Morrissey) — is the subject and substance of the opening scene of “Hangmen,” directed by Matthew Dunster with a vitality that makes darkness shimmer. But though the death we witness is unnerving enough, it’s the last, searing blaze of life that precedes it that really jolts, setting off an endless chain of suspicions that will never be entirely resolved.
The condemned, you see, died before he could set the record straight about his guilt regarding the murder of a young woman in a British seaside town. He was cut off, as it were, mid-story. And unfinished stories have a way of growing and mutating and being manipulated by others in the world of Mr. McDonagh, sometimes with fatal consequences.
I followed a Saturday matinee of “Hangmen,” which I caught on an appropriately dark and raw afternoon on my first day in London, with an evening performance of “Escaped Alone,” the new play by the peerlessly inventive Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theater (where, as it happens, “Hangmen” made its debut last September, before transferring to the West End). Resonant similarities between the two works were not something I expected.
After all, Ms. Churchill, though several decades the senior of the 45-year-old Mr. McDonagh, is far more of an experimentalist, a writer who bends time and language into exotic and illuminating shapes. Yet “Escaped Alone,” a 55-minute futurist study in fractured conversation among four women in their 70s, and “Hangmen,” a two-and-a-half hour comic mystery cut from the pattern of old boulevard thrillers, wound up serving as oddly well matched bookends in a highly satisfying day of theatergoing.
Both works tease, tickle and unsettle their audiences through the strategic dispersal of information, underlaid with an awareness that all information will always be incomplete. More surprising, perhaps, both involve a murder that is remembered differently by different people.
And both make instrumental use of spoken words — words that can be misheard and repeated according to how they are pronounced, stretched out or shrunken. They are both, that is to say, resounding testaments from British dramatists to the particular power of live theater to spin a yarn that ties an audience in knots.
Mr. McDonagh — who made his name in his 20s with a series of violent black comedies set in rural Ireland — has said in interviews that he is better suited to making movies than to writing plays. (His films include “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.”) The evidence to date says otherwise. I can think of few contemporary playwrights who infuse old-fashioned, precision-tooled dramaturgy with such fresh blood.
Real blood — or the equally red and sticky stage equivalent — of course figures prominently in the McDonagh canon. (“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” his blistering portrait of bumbling Irish terrorists, was littered with severed body parts.) The squeamish will be happy to know that the gore factor in “Hangmen” is minimal; this does not mean it is any less macabre.
Set in 1963 and 1965, the year capital punishment was suspended in most of Britain, “Hangmen” appropriately harks back to a genre that flourished in the mid-20th-century theater but has since been on the wane. That’s the corkscrew-twist thriller, which once titillated audiences with carefully arranged shocks and labyrinthine plots (a form now largely consigned to film and television).
The grand dowager of that species is Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,”which has been running in the West End for more than half a century. “Hangmen” shares that warhorse’s canny commercial mastery of switch-and-bait technique. It mostly takes place in a pub in Northern England run by the newly retired hangman Harry Wade (Mr. Morrissey), who oversaw 233 capital executions (not that anyone’s counting). “Hangmen” also belongs to the equally venerable tradition of story swapping in bars, found in plays that range from Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (1947) to Conor McPherson’s “The Weir”(1997).
As designed by Anna Fleischle (sets and costumes), Joshua Carr (lighting) and Ian Dickinson (sound), “Hangmen” summons that eternal crepuscular world of suspense but is also very much set in the 1960s, when sexual liberation brought a new frankness to tabloid prurience. The swaggering spirit of that age is embodied with insinuating brio by Mooney (a fantastic Johnny Flynn), a young stranger from London who shows up in Harry’s pub on the very day it’s announced that hanging has been abolished.
This dapper but seedy fellow may or may not know a crucial secret about Hennessy (Josef Davies), the man whose 1963 execution we witnessed in the play’s slam-bang prologue. Mooney would definitely seem to have designs on Shirley (Bronwyn James), Harry’s shy 15-year-old daughter. The events set off by his appearance are annotated by a hilariously bleary chorus of barflies, as well as by Harry’s gin-loving wife (an expert Sally Rogers), his inept former assistant (Andy Nyman) and the eminent hangman, and Harry’s archrival, Albert Pierrepoint (John Hodgkinson), who has a showstopping, second-act monologue of the type you thought they didn’t write anymore.
After the sour testosterone that befogs the air of “Hangmen,” it was rather a relief to spend time with the all-female cast of Ms. Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” that evening. The marvelous, perfectly balanced ensemble is made up of Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, who portray women idly (yet anxiously) sharing opinions and reminiscences as they bask in the sun of a fenced-in backyard.
Directed with deadpan stealth by James Macdonald, with an inspired convertible set (by Miriam Buether) and lighting (Peter Mumford) to match, “Escaped Alone” is, like “Hangmen,” a work propelled by inference. Unlike Mr. McDonagh’s play, which applies the faulty human deductive process to events present and recently past, “Escaped Alone” extrapolates an apocalyptic future.
The ensemble scenes alternate with monologue sequences in which Ms. Bassett’s character speaks of a world in years to come that is plagued (nay, nearly destroyed) by flood, famine, fire and pestilence. The connections between the two parts are neither obvious nor literal. But listen closely; you’ll hear how these portrayals of a mythic, irreparably damaged future grow organically from fears and longings of the women’s artfully shaded afternoon chatter.
“Escaped Alone” turns out to be about the horrible consequences of mortal carelessness. So, when you think about it, does “Hangmen,” which slyly addresses the folly of leaps to judgment that end in death.
Not that you’ll necessarily reach such conclusions while you’re watching either play; you’ll be too caught up in their narrative tension. But afterward, you’ll find yourself latching onto provocative thematic patterns that emerged without your even realizing at the time. Mr. McDonagh and Ms. Churchill both know very well that the best way to a theatergoer’s mind is through the nervous system.