Theatre

Review: The Painkiller is magnificently-choreographed chaos

After the cast of The Painkiller have taken their final bow, you really notice it – the stage is a mess!

The two adjoining rooms that form the set of the Maison de Lits hotel look like they’ve been hit by a hurricane. A light fixture has been pulled out of the bathroom ceiling. There’s a hole in the door of a wardrobe. Sheets are dishevelled and decorative pillows are strewn everywhere.

It’s a very different scene from the play’s opening moments when the two lead actors – Kenneth Branagh as Ralph, a hard-headed hitman, and Rob Brydon as Brian Dudley, a suicidal photographer from the Swindon Advertiser – check in.

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The Painkiller in rehearsals

So what happened? Suffice to say, things get complicated as they always do in a farce. Trousers come off. Doors slam. Physical humour abounds. There are mistaken identities and sexual shenanigans. As The Painkiller’s plot unfolds, it’s both unpredictable and addictive.

What’s more, Branagh and Brydon give tour de force performances that make the show shine. It takes precise coordination to create this much pandemonium onstage – and their comic timing is spot on. That’s expected of Welsh actor and comedian Brydon, well known for his role as naïve Uncle Bryn in the BBC3 sitcom Gavin & Stacey, but Branagh, who’s enjoyed much of his success through various Shakespeare productions, is clearly up to the task too.

In addition, Mark Hadfield has a wonderful sense of timing as the constantly confounded porter. The charismatic Claudie Blakley, seen most recently on the ITV detective drama Grantchester, depicts Brian’s estranged wife while Alex Macqueen embodies Dr. Dent, the pompous psychiatrist she’s left her husband for. Rounding out the talented six-member cast is recent theatre school graduate Marcus Fraser, who landed his first professional role as the policeman.

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The Painkiller in rehearsals

Dramatist Francis Veber produced his French farce Le Contrat in 1969. A few years later it was made into a film and renamed L’Emmerdeur (which loosely means “the pain in the ass”). After multi-Olivier Award winner Sean Foley convinced Veber to let him adapt the play in English, The Painkiller premiered at the New Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2011 with Branagh and Brydon in the lead roles. It’s now getting this second production as part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s year-long residency at the Garrick Theatre.

There are some truly hilarious and heartrending moments in The Painkiller. You’ll be in hysterics when the porter cleans up a puddle of water and when Ralph desperately tries to get his hands on a cup of coffee (or rather, “coffa, coffa, coffa”). And you can’t help but sympathise with hapless Brian as he tries to save his marriage.

So expect to laugh until you cry – or maybe it’s other way around – to cry until you laugh. But be warned: You’ll never be able to listen to the song The Lady in Red the same way again.

Get tickets for The Painkiller now, currently booking at London’s Garrick Theatre until 30 April 2016. 

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