The Painkiller leaves us numb at the Garrick Theatre

Saturday 2nd April 2016, matinée

As we made our way to the Garrick Theatre for our second in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season, we wondered how we would fare with our severely restricted view seats this time.  We had changed things up a little by choosing the opposite side of the theatre in the Grand circle, and as the set of ‘The Painkiller’ consists of two adjoining hotel rooms, occupied by the two central characters, we couldn’t help but play a game of ‘Kenneth or Rob?’.  Since we could only see the right half of the stage, surely we would only be able to enjoy one of the performances?  The good news is that there is enough adjoining door action to allow a pretty good view, and it didn’t take long to realise that this isn’t the sort of tightly plotted farce where missing a bit of business will ruin your experience of the play, even if we did miss a few laughs along the way.

The Painkiller is adapted by Sean Foley from Francis Veber’s original and has an intriguing set up.  Two professionals occupy rooms in a hotel next door to each other – one is a hitman on his final job, to assassinate a famous criminal who is in the courthouse over the road from the hotel, the other, a photographer, is suicidal after being abandoned by his wife.  When the photographer causes a commotion by breaking the plumbing in a botched suicide attempt, the hitman realises the only way he will be left in peace to complete his assignment will be to offer to ‘take care of’ the distressed man himself.  Sean Foley hit the target with his last West End show as Director, The Ladykillers, but on that occasion he was assisted by Graham Linehan.  Would he be able to repeat his success here?

We can see why Kenneth Branagh wanted to include this play in his new season.  He is able to let rip and show off his technical prowess, with that famous vocal dexterity, and a wide-ranging talent for slapstick and silliness, which contrasts nicely with his steely hitman persona.  As he descends from ruthless killer to gibbering wreck courtesy of some overly strong horse tranquilizer, it is a joy to see the inner conflict play out as the willing spirit is repeatedly let down by the ever weaker flesh.

Rob Brydon uses his legendary loquaciousness to excellent effect too.  Self absorbed and passive-aggressive, we can see why his wife left him for another man who turns out to be obnoxious and arrogant in equal measure, and why the hitman is all to happy to assist him with his suicide.  Our only comment would be that while he has a brilliant line in the kind of shallow, brain-numbing, running commentary that drives everyone to distraction, Brydon doesn’t quite convince as a loser.

Ultimately, the show is not only less than the sum of its parts, some of the parts themselves were defective.  The plot is paper-thin, which in itself wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t overburdened with a vast amount of extraneous business.  The situation is so surreal that it is very difficult to give it the weight of familiarity which makes for really visceral comedy.  Somehow we were just in the wrong mental place to enjoy the silliness.  And the comedy is certainly that.  We suspect that even schoolboys might turn their noses up at the endless disrobing, contrived sexual shenanigans and over-choreographed violence.  The issue is not so much that the action is implausible in itself, but that the plot doesn’t really have an internal logic driving it.

Of course there are moments of hilarity, and Mark Hadfield leads the supporting cast with relentless comic energy in his role of the hotel concierge Vincent.  Overall, though, it felt as though a cast (and Director) this talented should have had material that better enabled them to show off their talents.

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