Sir Ken and Co Are a Riot With Their Trousers Down But 'The Painkiller' Is Not Quite Needle Sharp

Daily Mail, 18 March 2016
By Quentin Letts
Thanks, Jane

One of the joys of farce is the sight of grown men with their trousers round their ankles, waddling out of the route of oncoming disaster. They seldom succeed!

Sir Kenneth Branagh’s admirable tenancy at the West End’s Garrick theatre continues with a hotel farce by French playwright Francis Veber. It makes for a cheerful enough evening and offers the sight of not only Sir Ken with his trousers round his feet, but also Rob Brydon.

Then there is the vision of the great Branagh playing a man stoned out of his head on horse tranquilliser. He does this rather brilliantly, even if the direction runs a little out of hand.

But the fight scenes — the slapstick violence essential to any farce — are feeble. I suspect that it will not be until they become more convincing that this show will fly.

A suicidal photographer called Dudley (Brydon) arrives at a big-city hotel. His wife (Claudie Blakley) has left him for a suave doctor (Alex Macqueen). Dudley likes to tell people that he is working for a top photo agency but, in fact, he is employed by the Swindon Advertiser.

In the adjacent room is professional assassin Ralph (Branagh). He has chosen his room carefully, for it offers a good view of a courthouse where a Mafia suspect is about to arrive for a trial.

Ralph has been told that if he fails to kill his target, he himself will be liquidated. His boss rings him on his hotel line to check that all is going according to plan.

This play, you see, was originally written in 1969, though it has been updated and anglicised by director Sean Foley.

The two bedrooms have connecting doors. Alice Power’s set includes a short flight of steps (good for tripping up/down) and open windows (good for falling out of). A shower fitting comes off the wall — cue spraying water. Furniture is punched, light fittings are shot from their moorings and there are moments when men seem to be ravishing one another.

Brydon and Branagh have a ball, Sir Ken on good form as a tough-guy assassin whose murderous intentions are soon disrupted by needy Dudley. Mr Brydon is well cast as this maddening fusspot.

Mark Hadfield, perhaps slightly on autopilot, does his normal comedy routine as the hotel porter.

Farce always assumes an inner logic of its own but there are places in this story when that logic almost disappears. If they could pick up the pace a little, it would give audiences less time to notice some of the more far-fetched moments.

Sir Ken’s fight sequences with a policeman (Marcus Fraser) are so clunky, they may need a substantial rethink. A cheerful, blameless evening, all the same.

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