'The Painkiller': Theater Review
Kenneth Branagh returns to the West End stage in director Sean Foley's adaptation of a 1969 French farce by Francis Veber, also starring Rob Brydon.
Almost halfway through their 13-month, six-play residency at the Garrick, Kenneth Branagh and his team inject new spark into a creaky old French farce in The Painkiller. Reviving a production they first staged in Belfast back in 2011, Branagh and director-adaptor Sean Foley milk this odd-couple comedy for maximum broad laughs and slapstick humor. It'll win no prizes for originality or depth, but it has the rollicking energy and marquee appeal of a crowd-pleasing hit.
The Painkiller is based on a 1969 play by Francis Veber, the prolific and much-filmed French farceur whose crossover remake hits include The Birdcage, My Father the Hero and Dinner for Schmucks. Veber's second play was first staged in Paris under the title Le Contrat, then later renamed L'Emmerdeur. It has been filmed twice in French and once in English, as Billy Wilder's feeble 1981 misfire Buddy Buddy, which co-starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Updated with Veber's blessing, Foley's new adaptation incorporates more contemporary details such as mobile phones and ketamine, but the underlying social and sexual attitudes still feel a little dated.
In the unashamedly contrived setup, an ill-matched pair of strangers find themselves in adjacent hotel rooms with adjoining doors. Welsh comic Rob Brydon (The Trip) plays Brian Dudley, a depressed loser who is contemplating suicide after the collapse of his marriage. His loud anguish attracts the attention of his neighbor, Branagh's sharp-suited professional hit man Ralph. Initially indifferent to Brian, Ralph is forced into an uneasy friendship in order to complete his latest assignment: assassinating a notorious gangster before he can give incriminating evidence at the courthouse next door.
But Ralph’s plans are soon knocked off track by Brian’s increasingly needy and desperate antics, which culminate in a fraught showdown with his estranged wife Michelle (Claudie Blakley) and her new partner, the insufferably pompous psychiatrist Dent (Alex McQueen). Identities are confused, punches thrown, doors slammed and trousers dropped. And then, for reasons too goofy to explain here, Ralph has his brain scrambled by an injection of horse tranquilizer, closely followed by a hefty shot of amphetamine.
There is precious little subtlety in these boorish caricatures and their Looney Tunes clowning. Such are the rules of old-school farce, of course, but they leave little room for the more nuanced comic skills of performers like Brydon. Foley and Branagh have done disappointingly little to reimagine or upgrade their clunky, old-fashioned source material. They also seem to believe that loud bellowing and stage-drunk mugging are adequate substitutes for witty dialogue. Wrong.
That said, Branagh's unexpected flair for high-energy physical comedy is this show’s secret weapon. When Ralph is heavily drugged, his manic exertions include bursts of moonwalking, voguing and bouncing around the set like a human pinball. The 55-year-old theatrical knight radiates a childlike sense of anarchic mischief in these kinetic scenes, his rubber-limbed contortions invoking the bendy genius of a primetime John Cleese or Steve Martin. These superbly choreographed sequences alone almost justify the price of admission.
Also worthy of mention is Alice Power’s striking set design, composed of two rooms that mirror each other in design but not color scheme, divided by an invisible wall. Foley makes smart use of the symmetry by having Branagh and Brydon mimic each other’s movements and conduct overlapping conversations on either side of the divide. The Painkiller may ultimately add up to less than the sum of its parts, but some of its parts are magnificent.
Venue: Garrick Theatre, London
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Rob Brydon, Claudie Blakley, Marcus Fraser, Mark Hadfield, Alex McQueen
Playwright: Francis Veber, adapted by Sean Foley
Director: Sean Foley
Set and costume designer: Alice Power
Music & sound designers: Ben and Max Ringham
Lighting designer: Tim Mitchell
Fight director: Bret Yount
Presented by Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, Fiery Angel