Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company has been a valuable addition to the West End over the past few months, with its highly regarded production of A Winter’s Tale last year the first of many exciting looking productions.
The Painkiller, a Sean Foley adaptation of a French farce, is an unusual choice, especially for Kenneth Branagh, who is more associated with Shakespearean epics than comedy clowning. It has been slightly updated since it last played in London (there is even a reference to ‘Netflix and chill’), however the broad premise remains the same.
Brian (Rob Brydon) is a desperate photographer, planning to kill himself as his wife has left him for her psychiatrist. In the neighbouring hotel room is Ralph (Branagh), a secret agent type who is using his room to carry out a discreet contract killing. After overhearing a commotion in the next room, Ralph is forced to intervene, leading to inevitable farce as he is injected with the tranquiliser that was meant for Brian.
The setup of a double hander in a hotel room reminded me very much of The Mentalists, which played just metres down road at the Wyndham last year. Whilst that star vehicle for Stephen Merchant left me a bit cold, this is much sharper and funnier, mainly due to the exceptional performances from the two lead actors. Despite an unbelievably dark first ten minutes, once the premise is established, the play never looks back, delivering a pacy and enjoyable farce.
Kenneth Branagh puts in a surprising masterclass in physical comedy as Ralph, getting big laughs despite spending most of the play unable to speak. He is, as expected, excellent at playing the silky smooth secret agent but his movement and timing is also exceptional and he deploys razor sharp comic timing. Seeing one of the greatest actors of our generation indulging in slapstick comedy is almost worth the admission price alone.
Rob Brydon is equally skillful as the touchingly sad Brian. The character is likeable but ultimately tragic, and Brydon balances these two character traits perfectly to create a believable performance. The chemistry between these two characters is integral to the success of the play and Brydon and Branagh are great fun to watch together. There is a shared solitude between the characters, despite their different backgrounds and it was deftly conveyed despite the chaos going on elsewhere.
Amongst the supporting cast, I am usually a huge fan of Alex MacQueen but I did not find him highly believable as the bad tempered psychiatrist, who was highly prone to shouty rants. However, Mark Hadfield put in a fine turn as the camp porter who became increasingly bewildered by his guests.
Being a farce, there was the usual mix of people falling over, walking into walls and trousers falling down. The dialogue was sharp enough to keep it engaging however, although there was a period in the middle where it almost reached The Play That Went Wrong levels of excessive slapstick.
However, generally it was highly entertaining; I won’t give away any spoilers but a few physical set pieces (usually involving Branagh) brought the house down and had people struggling for breath.
Alice Power’s set is effective in showing the drudgery of many modern hotels, showing two rooms side by side whilst still providing the audience with effective sight lines. Sean Foley’s direction is also excellent, mining every inch of comedy out of his own script.
The Painkiller is certainly one of the riskier parts of Branagh’s season, however it is a risk that pays off. With the dark nights still looming, it delivers an entertaining night with some of Britain’s best actors. What more can you ask for than that?