The Painkiller
Kenneth Branagh returned in triumph to Belfast, the city of his birth, last night and proved that among all his other achievements he is also a great farceur

The Stage, 30 September 2011
By Jane Coyle

It is a classic triumph of form over content - a heady, hilarious fusion of French farce and British humour.

Sean Foley has forged a terrific new onstage partnership for the premiere of his riotous English language adaptation of Francis Veber’s early comedy 'Le Contrat'.

Kenneth Branagh plays slick, besuited hitman Ralph, who has the misfortune to have booked himself into the hotel room adjoining Rob Brydon’s Brian, a pathetic, third-rate press photographer, whose wife Michelle (Claudia Harrison) has, unsurprisingly, thrown him over for Hugh Dent, a wealthy, handsome psychiatrist (Stuart Graham).

In the two central characters, Foley has skilfully resurrected two of Veber’s recurring and contrasting comic figures, strapping Jean Lucas and weedy Francois Pignon.

Inside Alice Power’s glossily generic spaces, separated only by a connecting door and a line in the imagination, one man is there to end his life, the other to end somebody else’s. But, under the arched eyebrows of Mark Hadfield’s camp hotel porter, their respective tasks unravel at breakneck speed.

Branagh is on fire, reminding us of what a superb comic actor he is. The amusing early scenes are a little pedestrian until Ralph suffers a knock to the head, which, literally, renders him senseless. From this point, Branagh morphs into a fearless, perfectly controlled performance as the cool professional, reduced to a staggering, dribbling, eye-rolling mess.

Brydon is the perfect sidekick as blundering Brian, trying desperately to be a friend to a man who neither wants nor needs friends.

With narrative a relatively minor priority, the complexities of split-second timing and high-energy slapstick still require some fine tuning, but this good-looking, stylish affair, kicking off in Branagh’s native city, must surely have its sights set on venues across the Irish Sea.

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