Kenneth Branagh’s year long residency at The Garrick Theatre has sent ripples of excitement through the entire West End, and with good reason. 5-time academy award nominated Branagh is the modern-day Laurence Olivier, as renowned for his directorial talents as his acting. His latest show at The Garrick is ‘The Painkiller’ by French screenwriter, director, producer and playwright Francis Veber, adapted into English and directed by Sean Foley.
This outrageous 90 minute, one act comedy is a work of genius. Staged as if looking through a wall, you see two adjacent hotel rooms; one belonging to Brian Dudley (Rob Brydon), a depressed press-photographer from Swindon, and one to Ralph, a.k.a. ‘John Smith’, a lethal assassin, played by Branagh. The two rooms are linked by a set of double doors at the back of the stage, and despite the wall separating the two rooms down the centre being only an illusion, you absolutely believe it. Director Sean Foley rightly says “In comedy, the set can more or less function as another player”. In great farce, the physicality you see is as, if not more, important than the words in the script itself. Foley, along with set and costume designer Alice Power have created a comedic playground where the actors can unleash their madness.
Branagh and Brydon are a remarkable partnership. Both perform with expert comedic timing and wonderful physicality; Branagh in particular was sensationalas he spent a large chunk of the show unable to walk and talk properly, due to an unfortunate case of mistaken identity and a mishap involving a psychiatrist who just happens to be Dudley’s ex-wife’s new partner. The entire audience was bowled over in uncontrollably loud laughter at his performance. Brydon’s performance, however, initially appeared a little ‘panto’, but as he settled into the performance and stopped searching for laughs, allowing them to happen organically, he won over the crowd and delivered a very memorable performance.
As is often the way with fast-paced, exhaustive comedy, things can sometimes go wrong, but from that comes some of the loudest laughter and lengthiest applauses. I saw unplanned trips on the stage, fluffed lines, misbehaved props, and even a head injury. Yes, really. Psychopathic psychiatrist Dr Dent is playedby Alex Macqueen and he really is superb, however, he suffered a mild mishap on stage last night.
SPOILER ALERT! It seems Brydon may have been a little too in character at one stage, as Dudley smashes a vase over Dent’s head in a fight, however, despite this being a prop vase, the force used in this scrap caused a genuine injury, as Macqueen laid out on the bed with a trickle of blood rolling down his crown. I was fearful for a few moments as he lay absolutely motionless, but breathed a sigh of relief as he finally stirred and continued his performance. Branagh was unable to hide his concern when he saw Macqueen’s head, however, as they say, the show must go on, and indeed it did! All the actors stayed in character and continued the show in style.
Special mention goes to Mark Hadfield as the hotel porter. He was simply superb. It would have been very easy to turn his character into a gimmick, however, despite all the camp mannerisms and cliché character traits of a tip-hunting hotel worker, Hadfield turned the anonymous porter into a crowdfavourite role. Some of the best moments of the evening came from his wonderful exits from every scene which always included his farewell wave and a polite “Enjoy!” to his guests.
The Painkiller is outrageously funny. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s definitely worth seeing. Branagh’s performance, in particular, is a masterclass. This comedy, as described by Foley is “a play about brutal choices and painful situations and does indeed have serious themes, but in the end, The Painkiller’s purpose is to entertain” and that’s exactly what it does.
Review by Harriet Langdown
TodayTix are running an exclusive £15 front row ticket lottery for the entire season of Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Plays at The Garrick. Front row lottery tickets are available for The Painkiller, Romeo and Juliet, and The Entertainer. Don’t miss out!