Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company has been a good for thing for London, and its latest production The Painkiller which opens this week at the Garrick is a promising addition to the shows that preceded it. Audiences have loved this season because it feels like something special is happening even though this concept of a company taking residence at a single theatre has a very long tradition – although these days is less common in the West End. For audiences this has been a chance to see a developing body of work which, with the pulling-power of Branagh, has attracted some of acting’s finest names – and anyone who brought tickets before casting was announced can feel pretty pleased as first Judi Dench and Michael Pennington took to the stage in The Winter’s Tale while the recent announcement that John Hurt will join The Entertainer in the summer caused a ripple of excitement. And not to forget the chance to see Branagh himself in the West End has been well worth the eight year wait.
But, this season is also offering a training ground for younger actors, giving them the chance to work with and learn from more experienced performers, while experiencing a company environment in a major West End theatre. In The Painkiller Marcus Fraser makes his professional debut fresh out of drama school in a small role, while Branagh’s next project Romeo and Juliet gives leads Richard Madden and Lily James a chance to extend their theatre experience. In a sense then, everyone wins, and with reviews and award nominations of previous shows The Winter’s Tale and the double bill of Harlequinade / All on Her Own receiving very positive reception on the whole (Red Velvet came under the umbrella of the KBTC but was co-opted in from somewhere else’s production), there is a lot of expectation on The Painkiller to maintain this high standard.
On the whole I think it does but of all the shows it’s probably the most risky. This is a new-but-not-new piece adapted from a 1960s French farce by Francis Veber, but this is the first stage version in English written by Sean Foley. The original is not a famous play in the UK despite a few unremarkable films, and Foley discusses seeing it in Canada as the inspiration for this production. Branagh and Rob Brydon performed an earlier run in in Belfast in 2011, and both reprise their roles in this developed version. Set in a London hotel, Brydon plays Brian a failing Welsh photo-journalist planning to commit suicide because his wife has left him for her psychiatrist. In the neighbouring room is Ralph, an assassin who is using the hotel window to perform a contract killing on a visiting dignitary. Initially brought together by an over-zealous bellhop, the two men soon become embroiled in each other’s lives, but as the scenarios become increasingly ridiculous they find themselves battling tranquillisers, enraged exes, interfering policemen and too many cushions.
If you loved Harlequinade then this more modern farce will be for you and, as so often with comedy, will become sharper as the run progresses. There are still three previews before the official press night later this week so there are some elements that will work better when it’s been performed a few more times including some of the fight scenes which even from the upper circle are a little off-cue presumably as the actors are still holding back a little while they get used to the set, and saving something for the critics. But once the stagey beginning is over, and you get into the story, it very quickly finds its feet as the various incidents inflicted on the two protagonists become increasingly outrageous. Foley (and Veber of course) mixes together a variety of forms of humour from clever wordplay and sarcasm to plenty of slapstick, funny walks, accents and pure farce that keep you engaged for 90 minutes without it ever feeling too samey. There are occasional reprises of the same joke or act but overall Foley has been very restrained in ensuring the plot still progresses rather than just focusing on making the audience laugh, which they frequently do. It’s a good balance of still, and occasionally quite introspective dramatic moments, and side-splitting hilarity that can only come from a cast really enjoying themselves.
Brydon is the emotional heart of the piece, despite also being the cause of all the crazy things that happen, and it is essentially Brian’s story that we’re following. Much like his role in the recent Future Conditional at the Old Vic, of which he was by far the best thing about it, Brydon is very good here at combining the broad physical comedy with the sadness of a man who feel he’s lost everything, which will deepen as the run progresses, and for a lot of the time there’s a childishness to Brian ‘acting out’ until he gets what he wants. Interesting too to see how the relationship with Ralph forces him to reflect on how needy he has been, and at crucial moments takes the lead by looking after someone else, which Brydon makes believable without losing the comedy heart of the piece.
Branagh’s role initially is the more straightforwardly dramatic and for a long time it seems Ralph, (posing as John), will be the straight-man. In these opening moments as a cold hearted assassin, and at this very early point in the run, Branagh has more to give and will evolve his business-like contract killer into something slightly more menacing as he gets more performances under his belt. But a little way into the play Ralph’s character shifts too and here Branagh is already hitting his stride brilliantly as he gets his share of the comedy. As we saw with Harlequinade Branagh really has a flair for this kind of silly humour and he fully dives in here, enjoying the opportunity to push it to the extremes, and the post tranquilliser scenes are some of the funniest things you’ll see in London right now as Ralph loses control of his speech and limbs to hilarious effect.
The budding rapport between the two could easily be forgotten amidst the hysteria, but director Sean Foley ensures we see two lonely men finding unexpected support and solace in each other’s company, so you leave feeling they could have a life beyond the story – particularly as they end up in each other’s clothes, a hint that they’ve adopted traits as well. Great support from Mark Hadfield as the Porter / Bellhop whose cheery demeanour is severely tested by the goings-on in these adjoining rooms and having him popping in and out not only provokes some great comedic reactions but also a constant reminder of the ridiculousness of the situation. Alex McQueen and Claudie Blakley have small but important roles as Brian’s ex-wife and new lover which add nice variety to the plot and both are great at conveying the long-bubbling frustrations of their back-story with Brian.
Alice Power’s set is a perfect reproduction of a generic higher-end hotel with its fancy linens and surround-sound multimedia systems used to good effect. Showing the two rooms side-by-side really does emphasise how soulless these places are despite hotels going to considerable lengths to make visitors feel at home, and you get that sense from Power’s set that these kinds of rooms are the backdrop to endless human dramas which today just happens to be a suicidal man and an assassin. Incidentally, this is not the first time that these two characters-types have been brought together, there’s a 30 minute Murder Most Horrid episode from the 1990s with Dawn French and Amanda Donohoe that in a slightly different way was interested in the interaction of these two extremes.
So, The Painkiller is a worthy and enjoyable edition to the Branagh Theatre Company’s season that should mature very well as the run continues. I suspect the critics will be divided as they so often are about this kind of daft humour and Harlequinade received a variety of low 3 star and high 4 star reviews. But the audience loved it so much the cast got three curtain calls, and it will continue to delight. Following this are two serious productions of Romeo and Juliet and The Entertainer that complete the season, so at the end of a long dreary winter, The Painkiller is well placed to cheer us up as spring begins.
The Painkiller is at the Garrick Theatre until 30 April. Tickets start at £17 from a variety of ticket sellers but tickets are likely to sell fast after Press Night on 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1