Liam Rudden: Hanging on every word at NT Live

Hangmen Pic: Helen Maybanks
Hangmen Pic: Helen Maybanks
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THE roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint, or is it the other way around? Either way, nothing beats a night at the theatre. The immediacy and immersive nature of live performance uniting a room full of strangers, drawing them into the action in a far more visceral way than any movie could.

So, beaming live theatre onto a big screen has never really been for me. What’s the point? Where’s the energy exchange? The sense of being part of the unfolding drama - the actors just feet away, plying their trade without the aid of a safety net. There’s no chance to ‘go again’ in this environment.

Consequently, it has taken a while for me to get around to attending a National Theatre Live screening...Royal Court Theatre’s brilliant production of Hangmen changed all that.

The original intention had been to catch the play on my next trip to the Big Smoke, then I discovered it had closed last Saturday and I’d missed the performance streamed live into cinemas as part of the NT Live initiative.

Which is why, Monday found me at the Festival Theatre for an NT Live Encore screening of that live broadcast, keen to discover if it lived up to the promise that it would capture ‘the live, communal experience and sense of event through big-screen exhibition.’

Hangmen is a blisteringly dark comedy set in the 1960s, just as capital punishment is abolished.

Written by Olivier and Academy Award-winner Martin McDonagh, it opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where it enjoyed a sell-out run before transferring to the Wyndham’s Theatre on the West End.

While most plays about hangmen have a tendency to focus on Albert Pierrepoint, the most famous executioner of his time, Hangmen introduces audiences to Harry, the second-best hangman in England.

In his small pub in the northern town of Oldham, Harry, played with equal measures of bluster and bravado by David Morrissey, is something of a local celebrity.

But what is a hangman to do on the day they’ve abolished hanging?

Among the cub reporters and pub regulars dying to hear his reaction to the news, his old assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) and the peculiar Mooney (Johnny Flynn) lurk with very different motives for their visit.

Tightly directed by Matthew Dunster, the plot twists and turns as it explores ever more disturbing excesses of human nature.

I loved it. Truth be told, despite my reservations, the NT Live Encore experience didn’t disappoint, although there’s something slightly surreal about hearing the ghostly applause of the Wyndham’s audience echoing around the old Empire.

Perhaps the success of the evening shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. There is a precedent for screening plays, albeit on a much smaller scale.

In the 50s, 60s and 70s, Armchair Theatre, a weekly play broadcast live, attracted millions of viewers to ITV.

Transferring that concept to a cinema screen, however, is not without its problems and for a moment the other night things looked ominous as the voice and image of the pre-show host failed to sync. Thankfully, everything snapped into place as the play itself began.

A terrific cast, led be the always excellent Morrissey and Sally Rogers as hangman Harry and his long-suffering wife and sparring partner Alice, received great support from Simon Rouse, in wonderfully doddery form as the scene-stealing Arthur.

Bronwyn James too, as Harry and Alice’s moping teenage daughter Shirley, was impressive.

Throw into the mix Johnny Flynn channelling his best ‘Mr Sloane’ as the menacing Mooney and you can’t go wrong.

McDonagh’s sharp dialogue, barbed and beautifully delivered, boasts one-liners that elicit spontaneous laughter, often at the most inappropriate of moments, at other times because of their sheer absurdness.

The only problem I have now is that the NT Live experience was so enjoyable, it’s left me with an even greater urge to see Hangmen live on stage.

Encore indeed.