The Painkiller review – Branagh and Brydon are perfect pair in furious farce

Garrick, London
Doors are slammed and trousers dropped in this bawdy hitman caper which teases out the comic skill of its leads

Farce is purely a matter of taste. I met someone the other day who fulminated against this particular specimen, claiming it was the one likely dud in Kenneth Branagh’s estimable West End season. Yet, while it’s no Feydeau, I found myself laughing a good deal – as did the rest of the audience – and admiring the performances of Branagh and Rob Brydon.

The piece itself has a complicated history. It’s been adapted by Sean Foley from a 1969 Paris hit, Le Contrat, by Francis Veber, which has been thrice filmed – on one occasion by Billy Wilder as Buddy Buddy, which although it starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, led the director to say “the best thing about the film was that not very many people saw it”. Foley’s anglicised version has had a happier fate and, after an earlier outing at the Lyric Belfast in 2011 with the current stars, now makes it to London.

The premise is simple. Ralph (Branagh), a professional hitman, and Brian (Brydon), a suicidal photographer, find themselves occupying adjoining hotel rooms. Ralph’s contract involves the elimination of a criminal arriving for trial at the court house opposite. Brian, supposedly there to shoot the same event, is determined to kill himself after being deserted by his wife. Thanks to a solicitous hotel porter, Brian is entrusted to Ralph, who finds himself maddeningly deflected from his murderous mission and taking on the role of reluctant life-saver.

Claudie Blakley and Rob Brydon.
Fretful impatience … Claudie Blakley and Rob Brydon. Photograph: Johan Persson

The plot, with its distinct echoes of The Odd Couple, is a bit strained. It also introduces, in the shape of the lover of Brian’s wife, the least likely psychiatrist in world drama. Yet farce is something that takes wing in performance and Branagh, who like all the best straight actors is also a natural comic, proves adept at the genre. Initially, he displays the incandescent fury of a thwarted killer.

But after he’s been mistakenly injected with a powerful tranquilliser, his body acquires a lunatic momentum of its own. When he walks, his legs seem to move in different directions and his features acquire a Quasimodo-like distortion. Even a simple operation such as replacing a telephone receiver becomes as tricky as aiming an arrow at a permanently moving target. It shows Branagh is a dexterous expert at physical comedy.

Brydon’s main task as Brian is to convey a nerdy niceness that causes mayhem, something that he accomplishes with great skill. He also suggests there is something deeply pathetic about the character’s impotent uxoriousness: when his wife, played with fretful impatience by Claudie Blakley, turns up, she indignantly tells him: “You went to a meeting on premature ejaculation and even then you left early.” Mark Hadfield lends good support as the porter mildly astonished to find himself constantly intruding what looks like male coition. Even if that gag is overworked and the climax is a bit soggy, Foley’s direction includes the requisite amount of slammed doors and dropped trousers and, bringing the show in at 90 minutes, is suitably fast and furious. It may not be to everyone’s taste but, in these sombre times, I found the show offered a restorative tonic.

  • At the Garrick, London, until 30 April. Buy tickets at the Guardian Box Office or call 0330 333 4811.
Kenneth Branagh on acting – video


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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