'The Painkiller' Sees Branagh and Brydon At Their Comic Best
In the course of this delirious 90-minute farce there’s not an opportunity for a gag, visual or verbal, that’s passed up, says Dominic Cavendish
The Telegraph, 17 March 2016
What with the buttocks of Tom Hiddleston and the torsos of Aidan Turner and James Norton et al, the sight of male flesh is almost a nightly formality on TV these days. Well, it may not have the ladies swooning but it will certainly get the town talking: at the Garrick, the French-originated farce 'The Painkiller' treats its audience to the double-whammy of Welsh comedy actor Rob Brydon careering about in the skimpiest briefs and his co-star Kenneth Branagh – Sir Ken! – in only slightly less revealing underwear, twitching and flexing his pecs too.
Not a feast for hunk-seeking eyes – some people may need a stiff drink, or even smelling-salts after witnessing a Brydon present a view of his rear so indecent it would even lower the tone at the Cheltenham races; though at 55, Branagh can take some pride in his remarkably toned appearance. But it’s all in the good cause of comic high jinks.
Branagh plays Ralph, a hit-man whose life depends on carrying out a gangland assassination; Brydon has been cast as Dudley, a suicidal photographer from Swindon who won’t accept that his wife has left him for her psychiatrist.
They’re booked into adjacent rooms at a boutique hotel (overlooking the court-house where the bullets must fly) with an inter-connecting door (though the dividing wall is left to our imaginations). The co-ordinates are set for mayhem after Ralph is tasked by the fretful hotel porter with keeping a protective eye on the desperate divorcee; the latter recovers his will to live (or at least to live long enough to confront his ex), and in leaning ever more on his time-pressed helpmeet sends the stone-hearted Samaritan out of his wits.
I haven’t been able to track down the original 1969 play ('Le Contrat') by veteran farceur Francis Veber so can’t say for certain how much adaptor Sean Foley, who also directs, has mucked about with the text, but in the course of a delirious 90 minutes there’s not an opportunity for a gag, visual or verbal, that’s passed up.
The two stars (who did an early run of this show in Belfast four years ago) are in their element. Brydon shifts from hang-dog melodramatics to the sort of insistent puppyish cheeriness that would send anyone up the wall. Branagh uses that tense, coiled energy of his to suggest a man who keeps reaching the end of his tether and yet has to claw some semblance of composure back.
The sight of the pair attempting to shuffle-jump up their rooms’ small flights of steps with their trousers round their ankles is a comic joy unbounded. And in amid the horse-play (which extends to compromising positions in bed that are as humiliating as they are contrived) the piece sounds a few salutary notes about isolationist male uptightness and the need to let go.
Supplementing the double-act and often accelerating the madness are those who look in on the action: Mark Hadfield gives a supporting tour de force as the mincing, interfering and increasingly bewildered porter; Alex MacQueen shines too as Dudley’s loathed rival Dent, who mistakenly administers ketamine into Ralph’s posterior but suffers equal indignities himself. The other parts are under-written: Marcus Fraser’s policeman is mainly required to get biffed and bundled into a cupboard, though Claudie Blakley makes the most of Dudley’s exasperated wife Michelle, delivering the line (at the expense of the male sex) that gets the biggest laugh of the night.
This show will be followed at the Garrick by a 'Romeo and Juliet' starring Lily James and Richard Madden (another well-known face/torso from TV). In the meantime, this medicinal froth gives the West End a perfect shot in the arm.