There is something inherently British about the way we delight in farce. Perhaps it is that stiff-upper-lip default of sweeping problems under the carpet that makes us enjoy the face value of such silliness so greatly: a desire to find entertainment in scenes that otherwise convey emotional darkness. Why else would the slamming of doors and falling out of windows – even when entirely predictable, and when alluding to depressed men trying to hurl themselves out of them – end up being quite so hysterical?
And ‘hysterical’ may well be an understatement should you behold the riotous reception to the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of The Painkiller at The Garrick. This is Sean Foley’s adaptation of Francis Veber’s original play, Le Contrat, that intertwines a highly stressful day in the lives of two men, who each have individual appointments with death and who are placed in adjacent hotel rooms with interconnecting doors. Ralph, a professional hit man, is due to assassinate his target at the courthouse below his window, whereas Brian Dudley, a fledgling press photographer sent to cover the same trial, has resolved to kill himself because he can’t accept that his wife has run off with her psychiatrist. No prizes for guessing who plays the slick secret agent and who is the simpering Welshman between Sir Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon.
Branagh does not, at first, seem to have to strain too hard to play Ralph (though his condescending ease in the role is wildly satisfying to witness) but his silent seething as Brydon’s Dudley grates ever deeper on his nerves is timed to a tee. Similarly, Brydon seems cozily at home in his role, but to great effect – he is the clawingly affable glue trying desperately to stick itself to Branagh’s resistant rubber. As a duo, they couldn’t be more different and are thus totally winning.
With two such big personas on stage, members of the accompanying ensemble don’t stand a huge chance of competing. And this plight is not aided by the script, which leaves them all rather one-dimensional (the policeman who enters at the wrong time and is repeatedly thwacked on the nose and bundled into a cupboard; the ex-wife who only has one-liners about her husband’s sexual failings to throw at him, and so on). But Mark Hadfield’s camp hotel porter who keeps walking in at inopportune moments is an unfailing mood-brightener and, indeed, crucial to the turns the plot takes. Alex Macqueen – through sheer volume alone – rouses giant laughs as the irate psychiatrist to whom Dudley attributes his woes.
Throw in malfunctioning window shutters, oversized beanbags, broken showers, mistaken identities, a shameless amount of innuendo and an overdose of ketamine injected into the wrong person and, suddenly, all this talk of dying and divorce becomes rather more amusing than you might expect. To be sure, watching Sir Ken waddling around with his trousers around his ankles, slipping over a wet floor, is one of the more surreal moments you’ll encounter in a theatre. Brydon positively revels in losing his clothing – you’ll catch many sights of his backside (albeit, for the most part, swathed in drab blue briefs).
And in this respect, The Painkiller displays that inimitably straightforward style of farce at which the British are so gifted. It is like one of the more physical episodes of Fawlty Towers eked out over 90 minutes: more often than not, you have a humourless Englishman (sometimes Branagh, sometimes Macqueen) shouting to be heard above unresponsive imbeciles, with everybody perpetually hindered by the same, remarkably unfortunate number of accidents. It is a whirlwind of inanity. As such, if you are the least bit tired, this show is rather a smack around the face and, if this type of comedy is not your thing, then you’d best grit your teeth. But it never tries to be anything that it is not, which is not just its saving grace but the key to its undeniable success. Only at the beginning, when the glossy opening sequence takes on the fluency of a crime drama, music and all, does any other vibe take over, but this tweak makes the subsequent slapstick seem even more basic.
Basic need not be a bad thing – everyone knows that one character falling over won’t have been an accident, and that if he kicks someone else in the nuts in so doing, that both events have most definitely been planned. So Branagh & Co. do not ever try and make these occurrences look too effortless – the audience knows what it’s in for, and it is duly rewarded.
The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre runs until 30th April 2016. For more information and tickets, visit the website.