Review: Branagh And Brydon Strip For Unfunny French Farce The Painkiller
Opening this week, The Painkiller sees the unlikely pairing of top thesp Kenneth Branagh and the as-seen-on-TV Rob Brydon. The production was originally staged in 2011 in Branagh’s birthtown of Belfast and now appears as part of his year-long run of shows at the Garrick theatre.
For better or (much) worse, The Painkiller is adapted from a 1960s farce penned by Francis Veber, the writer of La Cage Aux Folles which was remade as The Birdcage with Robin Williams. The plot, such as it is, sees Branagh’s hitman Ralph preparing to assassinate someone from his hotel room window. His neighbour Dudley (played by Brydon) is a local photographer with a broken heart and suicidal intentions. As the two men unintentionally interfere with each other's plans, near-nudity, chaos and "hilarity" ensue.
The actors all work within The Painkiller's limited script and Branagh is especially eye-catching. He starts out as a suave gunman armed with a metre-long penis extension of a sniper rifle but, after an injection of Special K, he spends about 20 minutes staggering around, slurring his words and sounding for all the world like a Cockney having a stroke.
Brydon plays within himself as Dudley, the Welshman with limited talent, but is the perfect foil for the Irishman’s more outrageous antics. The pairing is inspired and drags The Painkiller to levels that the writing frankly doesn't deserve.
Characterisation here is so thin as to give wafers a bad name. Beyond the two headliners, Dudley's wife (Claudia Bakley) is a secretary (the only job that women were apparently fit for in the 60s) while her new lover (Alex Macqueen) is a burly and belligerent psychiatrist — or is he a psychologist? The script isn’t quite sure. Either way, the depiction is pure pastrami: beefy yet hammy at the same time.
Rounding out the cast, Mark Hadfield as hotel employee Vincent and Marcus Fraser as a policeman serve only to be increasingly consternated and beaten up respectively.
Those who enjoy manic slapstick and epic pratfalls will probably be found rolling around one of the Garrick’s aisles by the time the curtain goes up while fans of highly contrived comedic situations and camp sexual innuendo are advised to wear a corset lest their sides split at some point during the 90 minute runtime.
In general, though, the humour is several decades out of date despite the occasional modern stylings (a reference to "Netflix and chill" here, a mobile phone there). A number of gags are positively geriatric: at one point, Dudley mispronounces the Spanish word cojones, Ralph corrects him and Dudley replies "Bless you" as if Ralph had sneezed. If this was a spoof, that exchange may deserve knowing winks and nudges; instead, there's a wide-eyed incredulity that such tired material was let anywhere near a West End stage.
Director Sean Foley applies the 'Brits abroad' rule to Veber's very French sense of humour: when something seems lost in translation, louder and louder shouting is employed to amplify the intent behind the words. That, combined with the same slapstick shtick being used over and over, deadens the impact of the final third when the action hits top gear and everything works its way towards its hoary climax.
Often, critics suggest that a play from another era offers valuable lessons for modern audiences. No-one will be saying that about The Painkiller other than, maybe, let’s never update decrepit farces again. If seeing Branagh or Brydon in the flesh or watching semi-naked middle-aged men playing out a near-half-century-old comedy is your thing, book now. Otherwise, there are far better farces elsewhere, not least the superb The Play That Goes Wrong over at the Duchess Theatre.
The Painkiller continues until 30 April. Tickets are from £15 and information can be found on the official website. Londonist attended on a complimentary press ticket.
Last Updated 24 March 2016