Monday, 30 July 2018

Review: Hanging (Tangled Theatre, GM Fringe)

Wednesday 25th July 2018
The Whiskey Jar, Manchester

And so, my little wander through this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme comes to an end. After musicals, puppetry, physical theatre, farce, poetry and me crying at a surprising number of shows, the final show I saw at this year’s festival was Hanging (as in the mode of execution, not the Mancunian adjective) by Tangled Theatre.

In many ways, this was a very fitting end to the festival for me. Hanging is the very essence of a fringe show. It’s a new play by an emerging playwright, produced by a brand-new company, featuring actors at the beginning of their careers. I went in not really knowing what to expect, and came out still processing what I’d seen. It’s odd, unsettling, experimental – definitely not ‘mainstream’ – and difficult to categorise in terms of genre and style. And it was performed in the basement of a pub. You can’t really get more characteristically ‘fringe’ than that, can you?

Hanging is written and directed by Marco Biasioli. The press release promised an experience ‘suspended between reality and dream’, in which a man awaits execution for an unnamed crime and is taunted by his executioners. I will admit to having had little more background info on this one, as I interviewed produced Elena Spagnuolo and actor Jasmine Oates for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special back in June. Nevertheless, I still didn’t know exactly what to expect from the play, as Spagnuolo and Oates were intriguingly circumspect in our interview!

The play opens on a bare set, the only decoration being a series of nooses strung from the ceiling. A man sits on a chair on one side of the stage, and on the other, two cloaked figures place a second man (this one with a sack over his head) on another chair. The cloaked figures – listed only as 1st Executioner (played by Oates) and 2nd Executioner (played by Lee Martyn) – begin to chatter about the upcoming execution, with 1st Executioner questioning whether 2nd Executioner remembers everything from his training and asking whether he has appropriately drugged the convict. This descends into a more mundane conversation about 7-a-side football, which 1st Executioner plays in her spare time.

This bizarre and rather unsettling opening is interrupted when the man – named simply as Man (and played by Brandon McCaffrey) – seated on the other side of the stage wakes up. Or is he falling asleep? Is any of what we see next really happening? Or is it all a projection or dream inside the Man’s mind?

What follows is a series of increasingly uncomfortable and abrasive interactions between Man and members of his family. Rory Greenwood (who is also the convict hidden under the sack) plays Man’s father, a bullying and overbearing character who tips into violence rather easily. Agnès Houghton-Boyle is Wife (or, rather, Ex-Wife) who appears to berate Man for his failure in their relationship. Martyn doubles up as Grandad, a seemingly benign figure in Man’s life, who may or may not be suffering from dementia.

Man rails, argues, beseeches and cowers from the circling taunts and aggressions of these family members, while focus switches between him and the unnamed convict at the other side of the stage, and the executioners who are, by turns, gleeful and bureaucratic in the face of their task.

Things escalate – or rather oscillate – as Man’s interactions with his family becoming increasingly surreal and hostile, and the sacked convict waking up to pronounce his final words. The play takes on a rather unhinged tone, almost suggesting Man’s descent into madness or the disjointed irrationality of a dream. Everything becomes exaggerated, with constant threats of violence and rape (Wife is attacked by both Man and 2nd Executioner, who believes she is a porn star), and a surreal exchange in which the sack-headed convict and Man tell the story of a mining town lost in its pursuit of gold.

As I have said, this is a new company and a cast of actors at the beginning of their careers. In places, performances are a little laboured and some dialogue is a bit stilted. The play’s style is heightened and surreal, so I wasn’t expecting completely naturalistic dialogue; however, some lines are slightly awkward and unidiomatic (e.g. ‘You’ve got chances’, instead of ‘You’re in with a chance’), which is a little jarring.

These criticisms are really only minor teething problems though. Overall, Hanging was compelling, strange and ambitious (and, as I said, that’s what I like to see at a fringe festival).

Greenwood's performance as Father is great, and he convinces as a man (literally) old enough to be Man’s father – even though there appears to be little age difference between Greenwood and McCaffrey. I was also quite taken by Greenwood’s performance as the unnamed convict – entirely delivered from underneath that sack. Had I not known differently, I would have assumed these parts were played by very different actors (and the incongruous gravitas that Greenwood infuses into a peculiar monologue about carbonara was undoubtedly one of my favourite bits of the play).

Martyn also does an excellent job of doubling up, with his 2nd Executioner and Grandad appearing substantially different, despite only minor costume changes. The latter character is particularly well done, with Martyn’s bent-double old man exuding an interesting mixture of confusion and irritation that is as discomforting as it is sympathetic.

As a final comment, I will say that the choice of venue was superb. I’ve never actually been to The Whiskey Jar before, but their basement performance space was a great choice for this play. While I’m sure the bar upstairs is lovely, the space downstairs has the feel of a horror film set – or at least it does for this production (stringing it with nooses obviously helps) – and this adds a general feeling of bleak dilapidation to the bizarre visions that unfold.

Overall, Hanging is a strong debut from Tangled Theatre. Unsettling – disturbing, in places – thought-provoking and ambiguous, this piece made for a great finale to the Fringe for me. And I look forward to seeing what Tangled Theatre do next.

If you’d like to see my other reviews of productions at this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, click here to see all my posts.

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