Friday, 18 March 2016

Theatre Review: The Painkiller

There hasn't been that much farce in the West End in recent years, with the unintentional and brilliant exception of Stephen Ward. And honestly that’s just the way I like it. I'm not, with a few notable exceptions, a huge fan.

One thing I am very much a fan of though is Kenneth Branagh. You may have noticed this if you’re a regular reader or have, like, ever bumped into me in the street and seen my many, large tattoos proclaiming my love*. And if Kenneth Branagh and his eponymous theatre company are staging a farce, with the boss in a lead role, then I am damn well seeing that farce.

Enter The Painkiller, an adaptation of a French farce involving a hitman (Branagh) and a suicidal loser (Rob Brydon, who I also have deep, Welsh love for) in adjoining hotel rooms, directed (and adapted) by comedy ace and previous KB collaborator Sean Foley. As with all farces the plot is both deeply convoluted and sort of irrelevant, but safe to say there are lots of misunderstandings, prat falls, instances of semi-nudity and, perhaps less common, swearing.  

Image source.

For my money, farce has to be done exceptionally well to be funny. The Painkiller is more than exceptionally done and it is fucking hilarious. There’s your headline: you should go and see this play because it’s face-achingly funny. Really that’s all you need to know.

‘But why is it so funny?’, I hear no one ask. Well, I’ll tell you.

At the simplest level it is technically spot on. As far as I can see, to make this sort of slapstick stuff work is basically like choreographing a particularly ungainly dance, and the choreography here is perfect. There are several sequences that involve synchronised movements where neither actor can see the other that are bang on time and a lot of fight scenes that would be boringly repetitive, and deeply ugly, if they weren't so well thought through and executed. Structurally it’s very tight too, with some great call backs to earlier details and tiny throwaway references (the bit with the cushion shower and the subtle nod to Alan Partridge being my personal, spoiler free, favourites) which work really well. It’s a pacey little thing too, coming in at a breathless but not rushed 90 minutes. 90 minutes of utter joy.

I wouldn't normally go out of my way to praise the writing in a farce but this is a really fun piece even without the slapstick exploits. I have no idea, and no particular inclination to find out, how faithful Foley has been to his source material but either way it’s great writing with some great jokes. Similarly, whilst the plot is highly implausible it doesn't stray into the realms of the impossible and so stays funny rather than perplexing. And whilst the characters are very obvious comic constructs - straight man and pathetic foil - the way the play flips the constructs onto different characters at different points is cleverly done.

It won’t surprise you to know that, in my entirely unbiased opinion, it’s the performances that make this production sing. Rob Brydon is always great as the lovable loser, although quite how lovable this particular loser is is rather open to debate, and isn't asked to do much outside his comfort zone for the part of the hapless Brian. Which is in no way a bad thing - he is hysterical - and is actually quite a canny piece of casting as it gives the audience an anchor; you know what you’re going to get from Brian as soon as Brydon walks on the stage and he delivers it perfectly.

Of course you think you know what you’re going to get as soon as Ken Branagh walks on the stage as the suave and cool hired gun Ralph. But you’re wrong. Ralph almost immediately loses control of the situation and finds himself in the hands (/loving arms) of Brian and the clusterfuck of characters and situation around him, which allows for the joyous transformation of the straight man you expect into the slapstick comedy foil. This play on our expectations gets Branagh all the biggest laughs and rightly so. His temporary reinvention as a physical comedian is a revelation, even to a sad obsessive fan like me. He throws himself into the part - figuratively and literally - with a commitment that seriously pays off with a range of silly accents, falling over, dancing and physical contortions that are hilarious. Basically, if you want to see one of our most distinguished actor/writer/director/producers making a completely tit of himself, and clearly enjoying it, this is the play for you. Also he ends up in various stages of undress several times, which may be relevant to your interests. Or perhaps that’s just me.

In case you’re an idiot and haven’t worked it out, I loved The Painkiller deeply and with passion. There’s no great depth to it, no lesson to come away with at the end, but who the fuck cares? It’s just great, great fun and I urge you to see it immediately and repeatedly. It gladdened my stony heart, and not just because I got to see Ken Branagh in his pants.

The Painkiller is part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Plays at the Garrick season and plays until 30th April.

*This is a joke, but only because I can't find a tattoo artists prepared to ink 'I LOVE YOU KB' across my forehead. 

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