The Painkiller

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence reviews Sean Foley's hilarious adaptation of Francis Veberʼs classic French farce, starring Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon.

Take a strong element of comedy, add a dose of reality and combine with split-second timing and you have the ingredients for the deliriously funny farce that is The Painkiller (Garrick Theatre), freely adapted from the work of French playwright Francis Veber by Sean Foley and directed by him.

The action is set in two adjoining hotel rooms overlooking a courthouse. One of them is occupied by Dudley, a failed photographer from Swindon who is determined to kill himself because his wife has left him for her psychiatrist. The other is taken by Ralph, a sharp-suited, sinister hitman who has come to wipe out a witness in the trial across the road before he names names and sends many others to prison. When Dudley insists on involving Ralph in his personal problems, the  latter is forced to abandon his veneer of indifference. Before long, Ralph and the doleful Dudley, who is in desperate need of a friend, are lying blissfully in each other's arms, not to mention more compromising positions.

There is a further comic twist when a policeman imprisoned in a wardrobe (don't ask how he came to be there!) punches his arm through the door and Ralph has to persuade the deliciously camp hotel porter that there is nothing unusual about a man who suddenly seems to have acquired an extra arm!

As in most farces, the set-up is a touch cumbersome and the humour is at times strained, but one is soon swept away on a wave of confused identities and pure slapstick, culminating in the injection of a tranquilliser by the psychiatrist Dent that transforms Ralph into a jelly-legged contortionist, staggering and spinning across the stage, with the ease of a rubber doll.

Alice Paver's boutique hotel set is most impressive, providing, more or less, another player in the comedy.

But it is the excellent performances that really bring this farce so vividly to life Kenneth Branagh, in particular, gives a masterclass in physical comedy as the svelte hitman Ralph who has no need of anyone or anything other than an elegant suit and a large rifle. Welsh actor and comedian Rob Brydon is a perfect foil as the "one man disaster zone" that is the hapless Dudley, whose predicament becomes genuinely touching as the action progresses. Strong support is provided by Claudie Blakley as Dudley's unresponsive wife, Michelle, Alex Macqueen as Dudley's loathsome rival Dent and Marcus Fraser as the unfortunate policeman. There is also a scene stealing, comic tour de force by Mark Hadfield as the mincing, interfering and bewildered hotel porter.

An evening of pure comic bliss!

The Painkiller

Garrick Theatre
Runs until 30 April 2016
Box office: 0330 333 4811

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