Writer: Francis Veber
Adaptor and Director: Sean Foley
Reviewer: Dan English
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon provide a comedy masterclass as Branagh’s Theatre Company opens their new offering, The Painkiller, at London’s Garrick Theatre.
Directed by Sean Foley, this adaptation of Francis Veber’s Le Contrat sees Branagh and Brydon star as neighbours in the boutique hotel ‘Maison de Lit’. Foley’s adaptation strikes a fine balance between clever wordplay and outright silly slapstick, finding the perfect casting in Branagh and Brydon, reuniting them in the roles they last performed in 2011. The pair, starring as an assassin and a suicidal soon to be divorcee respectively, find their lives become ever more intertwined in this well-executed farce.
Branagh is the elusive assassin who is sent to the hotel to carry out his final job, execute a court-bound gangster. Branagh’s performance is sensational, with his ability to deliver comedy both verbally and physically well on show in this production. Branagh’s assassin finds himself inadvertently tranquillised with a substantial amount of ketamine, with Branagh’s depiction of the result hysterical. Branagh’s physicality is controlled and well delivered and it links well with his superb interaction with Brydon’s Brian Dudley.
Brydon’s Dudley is a down on his luck photographer who, shunned by his wife, decides that the boutique hotel is the best place to end it all. What is most impressive about Brydon’s performance is the innocence that he channels through his character. Dudley is chronically unlucky and while his existence is annoying to Branagh’s assassin, Dudley is ultimately an endearing character that is easy to warm to. Like Branagh, Brydon combines vocal and physical comedy skills to perform this role and it is a testament to Brydon’s ability that his grin alone can bring an audience to their knees with laughter. His chemistry with Branagh is excellent and their polished slapstick routines are a highlight throughout.
While Branagh and Brydon receive much of the headline plaudits, there is a fantastic comic performance from Mark Hadfield as the hotel’s Porter. Hadfield gains the first laughs of the performance with his overly exuberant welcoming for the characters to their rooms, with his exaggerated reaction to a mirror that is not on stage well performed. Hadfield’s Porter often finds Branagh and Brydon’s characters in a number of compromising positions, which escalates as this farce continues, with the Porter’s comedic impact gaining momentum throughout. Hadfield does well to pull the running gags through this plot, which could so be easily lost in the fast-paced 90-minute production and it is his performance that secures the triumphant return to the stage for this show.
Alex Macqueen and Claudie Blakley are Dr Dent and Michelle respectively, with the latter being the estranged wife to Dudley. Macqueen is the thorn in Dudley’s side, as he is Michelle’s new man, and it is Dent who also administers Branagh’s assassin with the ketamine. There is an argument that Macqueen is slightly underused in this production, as his performance when interacting with Branagh and Brydon is outstanding, helping take the production to its heights near its culmination. Macqueen works well physically with Brydon and in one particular fight scene this has the right balance of real tension and humour. Blakley’s horse riding Michelle is used sparingly, but her wicked use of a horse whip is well incorporated into her performance. Michelle provides an element of seriousness in an otherwise silly play but this is needed so that the comedy can have such an impact.
Although he spends most of his time in a wardrobe, Marcus Fraser still provides a good performance as the Policeman. His fight scenes with Branagh are well choreographed and his ability to achieve laughter from the audience while locked behind a door is commendable.
Alice Power’s set design is well suited to this production. Great care and detail is shown in the set, which shows two mirroring hotel rooms differing only in colour scheme. Power’s design is also successful in assisting the comedy too, with its malleability allowing the performers to use the set as an enhancer to the hysterics rather than a restrictor. Every prop is used in some way in one gag or another and Power’s achievements in this design allows this.
Despite its short running time, The Painkiller packs an awful lot into its 90 minutes, thanks to a combination of success from both performers and production. Considering how fast this show moves, there is a huge scope for it to go horribly wrong, so for it to be performed without fault is a triumph. This is a seriously funny farce and it is a performance that invites the audience to lose themselves and just enjoy it for what it is, absurdly silly but phenomenally funny.
Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image: Johann Persson