The Painkiller*** (Garrick Theatre)

Posted: March 18, 2016 in Theatre

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The burning question here is whether a revered actor-knight can leave his Shakespearean gravitas in the dressing room and drop his trousers alongside a comic like Rob Brydon. It is difficult to envisage “Larry” doing it, but Kenneth Branagh passes the test with flying colours. On the other hand, there is no real test for Brydon who only needs to slip into his normal stage persona to become Swindonian Dudley, suicidal following the loss of his wife  (Claudie Blakley) to her psychiatrist (Alex MacQueen). Dudley arrives to end it all in a boutique hotel in London to find himself in the room next to Ralph (Branagh), a hit man on a mission to end it all for someone else. Alice Powers’ set for the two rooms is beautifully detailed and includes enough doors, cupboards and windows to accommodate all the mayhem that ensues. Yes, Francis Veber’s play (adapted by Sean Foley who also directs) is an old-fashioned farce in which the fun comes in bursts of physical comedy that are spread liberally through the 85 minute running time. There are no underlying serious themes to grapple with here, this being nothing more than a load of complete nonsense, best enjoyed with the brain in stand-by mode. The problem, as with most farces of this kind, is that everything is so cut adrift from reality that there is nothing for the audience to cling to when the madness subsides, as, inevitably, it has to. The script provides the actors with very little verbal wit, leading them to fill voids with over-playing; Brydon in particular sometimes shouts as if he is performing his stand-up act in the Millennium Stadium without a microphone. That said, Foley’s production skates over many cracks by moving at a frantic pace and the physical comedy set pieces are choreographed to perfection. Mark Hadfield as the droll hotel porter and Marcus Fraser as the policeman who takes all the knocks add a great deal to the fun. The play itself seems pretty feeble; inspired slapstick and top class performances only numb the pain, without completely killing it.

Performance date: 16 March 2016

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