The set-up is simple: Two adjoining hotel rooms are occupied by a professional hit-man and a suicidal husband. There’s also an adjoining door. It’s the kind of conceit which lends itself so perfectly to farce and director Sean Foley milks every last drop of humour from the situation.
Despite the threat of guns and suicide this is definitely the kind of boutique hotel you’d want to stay in. Alice Power’s set is at once functional and flowing, allowing the production a chance to breathe. Based on Francis Veber’s Le Contrat, The Painkiller comes from the boulevard tradition of French theatre upon which some dramaturgs may look down. Despite this (and perhaps one of the least appetising titles possible for a West End farce) The Painkiller is sublime.
In fact The Painkiller owes as much to Private Lives as is does Bedroom Farce or Boeing Boeing. With ideas as fresh as the hotel towels, there is immediate and somewhat fantastical physical comedy from both Kenneth Branagh (Ralph) and Rob Brydon (Dudley) but Sean Foley skillfully co-opts his audience and never allows the comedy to outweigh the pathos.
The arrival of Mark Hadfield’s slightly effete porter Vincent offers a fine turn in hospitality camp. Alerting the guests to the locations of full length mirror and remote control, he is put to great use also orienting the audience to key plot elements.
There is fabulous juxtaposition between Dudley and Ralph’s physicality and a deeply resonant counterpoint between Brydon’s trade-mark welsh baritone and the lyricism of Branagh’s Olivier-esque delivery. Director Foley makes great use of a double sided invisible full length mirror and at times the set pieces near a pink panther-like perfection.
Foley’s adapted script is full of witty put-downs and droll retorts. “Do you want to know how I met my first wife?” asks Brydon to which Branagh drily responds “I will never want to know that”. Every line is delivered with perfect weight.
It takes a certain type of actor to make the request to “Stop being such a colossal pain in the a***hole” reek of panache, but Branagh manages it with a debonaire charm. A faulty shutter and a lightning quick shimmy along a precarious window ledge plunge us headlong into classic farce but just occasionally, where Brydon’s comedy is intuitive, Branagh’s appears studied and deliberate. It’s perhaps unavoidable in farce that some scenes trade the plausible for applause as is evidenced in the arrival of Doctor Dent (Alex MacQueen). It’s largely down to the quality of the script and performances that the audience seemed more than willing to go along with it.
Following a bump to the head and a liberal dose of horse tranquiliser, Ralph develops a somewhat unfathomable series of accents covering Russia, Japan and Serbo-Croatia. As skilful as this is, it doesn’t always quite work and while calling someone a sock-cucker is deliciously fun in small doses, there are times when credibility is sacrificed too readily for creativity. Fortunately, and just in the nick of time, Dudley’s soon to be ex-wife arrives.
Claudie Blakley’s Michelle is a magnificent foil for the men as an equestrian torn between life with a boorish Psychotherapist and a suicidal and sexually disappointing husband. Her description of their sex-life as “like trying to get a marshmallow into a piggy bank” elicited genuinely raucous laughter from the audience and her revelation that their psycho-sexual counselling fell flat because “You went to ONE meeting about premature ejaculation and even then you left early” nearly brought the house down.
Any momentary weaknesses in The Painkiller are fleeting. There is a slice of physical comedy heaven where Branagh thinks he has lost a leg and another delicious moment (we won’t spoil it) when Branagh with one black and one white hand simulates self-gratification in front of the hotel porter.
Branagh also does a very fine line in moonwalking…imagine if Bob Fosse had choreographed a drunk Michael Jackson in Riverdance and you’re half way there. Perhaps one of the funniest moments of all comes when Vincent the Porter walks in on Dudley, Ralph and Doctor Dent enjoying a porn and amphetamine fuelled orgy….which is an awful lot less inappropriate than it sounds.
There are moments of pathos from Foley, allowing his audience a chance to breathe and the voice of Veber to come through. “What do we live for if not to make life less difficult for others?” he asks. While you’re ruminating on that rather rhetorical question, you may also wonder who it was that Branagh’s hit-man was supposed to kill. I never was too sure – but in the end it didn’t really seem to matter.
In a top-notch cast, it is Brydon who steals the show. His deadpan delivery is never less than immaculate and his unflinching honesty makes every line an instant classic. I even believed him when he told Branagh “You’re a trained hitman…you could turn your hand to anything – they’re crying out for nurses.”
In the end, The Painkiller is a tale of true friendship born of adversity. But more than that – it’s probably the best farce the West End has seen since Noises Off.
Verdict: A FINE BROMANCE
You can book tickets here for The Painkiller – expect them to sell out fast!
Booking until 30 April 2016
2 Charing Cross Road