Review: Pierrepoint: The Hangman’s Tale, Sweet, Grassmarket

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MACABRE. That’s the word I’m looking for. There’s just a hint of macabre delight in Martin Oldfield’s brilliant portrayal of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s last hangman, at the Apex Hotel, on the Grassmarket.

*****

There’s a twinkle in his eye as he describes the act of taking a life with a noose . . . or is there?

There’s certainly pride. After all, Pierrepoint followed in the family tradition, his father and uncle before him were also state executioners.

Pierrepoint: The Hangman’s Tale, by Peter Harrison, is an intimate, claustrophobic piece of theatre that offers a chilling insight into the mind of a man licensed to kill.

Oldfield approaches the role with all the bonhomie of a jovial publican, which he was also.

Indeed, it is the very normality with which he talks of death that disturbs. Matter of factly, he gives a masterclass in art of hanging, as though sharing something as mundane as the skill of shelf-stacking.

Oldfield’s is a wonderfully still performance. Minimal direction allows him to concentrate on telling the story as, in the background, Timothy Evans, played by 
Tom Blake, paces the condemned cell.

It’s the night before his life is to end on the gallows. At one minute to nine the next morning Pierrepoint will enter the cell, strap Evans’ hands behind his back, then quickly and calmly walk him to his death.

The execution will be over in less than a minute, but then speed of dispatch was something Pierrepoint prided himself on.

Evans is a poignant choice of condemned. He was hanged on March 9, 1950, aged just 25, but would later be proved 
innocent of the murder 
of his wife and infant daughter.

And as Pierrepoint talks about his many commissions – in excess of 450 it is believed over a 25-year period – it becomes clear all is not as it seems.

The glacial stare as he justifies his role as the State’s instrument of justice falters to reveal the doubts that haunt him, while his rapid-fire delivery, clear and concise, gives the impression of a man in need to unburden as much as possible, as quickly as possible.

Oldfield’s multi-layered performance is transfixing. Confessional, his
storytelling is divine.

As he reveals that Pierrepoint quit his post after a squabble about expenses, you can’t help wondering if that was just the excuse the hangman needed to finally escape the horror of his world.

Oldfield, meanwhile, returns triumphant for his ovation.

Until August 24