The harsh lighting of Pierrepoint is the first indication that the play you are about to watch is going to be stark and unnerving; of course, anything which recounts the life of England’s most prolific executioner is bound to be disturbing viewing.
Being performed in the round for the first time, the venue allows actor Martin Oldfield to wander around the stage, sitting with the audience at one point, while he talks about why he decided to resign after 25 years as the country’s leading hangman. Despite his double life as executioner and pub landlord near Oldham - he attempted to keep his two lives completely separate - his chitchat always refers back to his work as a ‘civil servant’ where he was responsible for more than 400 executions until he resigned in the late 1950s.
Oldfield has been much lauded in the role since it premiered five years ago and for good reason. His deadpan delivery and attempts at humour which don’t always work (and on some occasions did make the audience chortle until they realised they were laughing about someone being hanged) was spot on. The play is essentially a 60-minute monologue where he remembers a career in which he executed Ruth Ellis, Lord Haw Haw, Derek Bentley and the Nuremberg war criminals among many others.
Perhaps the most effective part of the show though is the hanging of Timothy Evans (played by Gareth Cassidy) whose calls for his mother are painful to listen to, particularly armed with the hindsight that he was an innocent man.
Written by former journalist Peter Harrison, some of the best moments are those where Albert Pierrepoint reveals a more contemplative side - where he talks of the ‘frightened faces’ of those he was about to execute and muses on the fact he was the last person to touch the person being executed and that his was the last face they ever saw.
It’s a tough watch, but The Dukes together with Manchester-based Café Society, have created an engaging and thought provoking piece of theatre. Ultimately though it leaves you wanting to know more about Pierrepoint whose double life remains such a curiosity.