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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Painkiller
Garrick Theatre  Spring 2016

A fast-moving pratfall-filled trousers-around-the-ankles farce, Sean Foley's adaptation of Francis Veber's French play is a thoroughly satisfying ninety minutes of non-stop silliness. 

If it might have been even better if it built to a farcical climax rather than petering out a little at the end, it still delivers what it promises, a whole lot of laughs. 

Kenneth Branagh, he of all the dour Shakespearean roles, plays a professional hitman, scheduled to take a sniper shot from a hotel window at someone entering the courtroom across the street. 

We can guess that the target is a rival criminal or one likely to testify against the hitman's employers, but in classic farce structure the Why never really comes up. The What is all that we need, the thing Branagh's character wants to do and is going to be constantly foiled at. 

And what's going to foil it is that the hotel room next door is occupied by a lugubriously depressed Welshman (Rob Brydon, doing his patented lugubrious Welshman shtick), suicidal because his wife left him, but so inept that his attempts to kill himself keep interrupting Branagh's preparations for the hit. 

The killer makes the classic farce mistake of getting involved, just to get rid of this distraction, and finds the emotionally needy and delighted-to-have-a-friend Welshman impossible to shake off. 

A doctor is involved, a powerful sedative is given to the wrong man, leaving Branagh staggering around semi-comatose, and then followed by a powerful upper, leaving him jerking uncontrollably like John Cleese doing Silly Walks. 

Trousers fall, people fall, doors open and close with tight and perfect timing or are slammed in people's faces, Bryden's character tries to be friendly and helpful, Branagh's character tries to do the job he was hired for, and a hapless hotel clerk keeps walking in on what seem like baroquely compromising tableaux. 

Adaptor-director Sean Foley knows that the essence of farce lies in speed and silliness, the first so that the audience never gets a laugh-free moment to pause and think about the illogic of the plot, and the second because once things get going they do not have to make any sense, they just have to be funny. 

And so ridiculous situation or plot twist is piled on ridiculous situation or plot twist with thoroughly satisfying relentlessness, and the actors onstage give the impression of enjoying themselves almost as much as we are. 

Rob Bryden could play his character in his sleep, and performs with a smooth, never-break-a-sweat confidence and polish that are a delight to watch. 

Kenneth Branagh, a less natural clown, has to work harder at being funny, and offers us the pleasure of seeing a performer stretch himself and find all the laughs. Mark Hadfield is droll as the hotel clerk trying to take it all in stride. 

This isn't Hamlet. The point of farce is to be non-stop funny. The Painkiller is non-stop funny.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Painkiller - Garrick  Theatre 2016 

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