The Painkiller is a farce with a deadly undertone: murder and suicide. The juxtaposition of low-rent laughs and high stakes tragedy works. At its best, it is extraordinarily funny, with surprising and unexpected sight gags raising most of the laughs.
Take one very camp Hotel Porter. Add a troubled, bereft photographer who can’t come to grips with the fact his wife left him for her shrink. Add a suave, suited hired assassin who wants to do one last, quick, clean, assassination job and retire. Add adjoining hotel rooms.
Add almost paper thin imaginary walls. Add botched suicide attempts, recalcitrant window shutters, a policeman trapped in a cupboard, a haughty medico with a sneer that could part the Red Sea and a quick line in injecting powerful drugs into complete strangers. Add a glamorous woman who doesn’t know what she wants.
Add easy jokes about how funny it is to see men in various states of undress doing one thing but looking like they may be engaged in some form of sexual activity. Add a dash of spraying shower water, slipping-on-towels action, falling unconscious into beanbags hilarity, under-the-influence-of-drugs slurring and shimmying and duplicate mime work. A hint of over and under enunciation. A soupçon of inadvertent porn watching and mistaken identity. The slightest hint of truth as the finishing touch.
These are the ingredients of the slightly over-sweet, slightly sour, but easily digestible cocktail that is Sean Foley’s adaptation and revival of Francis Veber’s The Painkiller (Le Contrat originally), now playing at the Garrick Theatre as part of the Kenneth Branagh Company’s season there. Like most cocktails, it packs a heady punch, makes you feel slightly naughty and a bit dirty, and leaves you wanting more – or something stronger.
The Painkiller is a farce with a deadly undertone: murder and suicide. The juxtaposition of low-rent laughs and high stakes tragedy works. At its best, it is extraordinarily funny, with surprising and unexpected sight gags raising most of the laughs. In part, it is the mere presence of Kenneth Branagh in the silly situations which presses the funny bone: one doesn’t expect to see Sir Kenneth onstage either in his underwear or simulating masturbation – but this show provides both as part of its comic lava flow.
In the programme, Farce is described as “Choreographed confusion” (quite right too) and Foley ensures that the business here is choreographed in minute detail but with that exciting edge: it is so well drilled, well-rehearsed, well timed, that it manages to look spontaneous and unplanned. Mostly anyway. Branagh and his co-star, Rob Bryden, are especially good at this, perhaps as a result of their first appearance in this production in Belfast in 2011 and their familiarity with the physical demands of the performance.
The business is aided and abetted by Alice Power’s terrific set design. The action occurs in Maison de Lits, a kind of posh boutique French Holiday Inn, where the rooms are identical apart from colour schemes. The immediate impression is one of ordinariness – the two rooms, side by side, with a wall that is partly real and partly imagined. All of the expected decor and furniture is there, but as the story unfolds unexpected delights abound from this ordinary looking place.
Power has accommodated all of the needs of Farce without being overt about them. The most obvious doors are not the ones where the surprise slamming occurs. Concealed spaces and windows almost become characters in their own right; it turns out that the bed is that size and the bean bag positioned as it is for excellent reasons. Many visual jokes turn merely on the use of Power’s cleverly designed adjoining hotel rooms.
By his own admission, Foley’s adaptation of Veber’s original is a free one, and a highly successful one. The dialogue is snappy for the most part and although there are sections where the action slows to a snail’s pace, the 90 minutes of performance time seems to be over remarkably quickly. And the overwhelming taste in your mouth at final curtain is satisfying and conducive to smiles.
This is not to say that everything is rosy about the production. It seems stuck in a very old-fashioned, perhaps wrong-footed notion of comedy. Is it necessary for hotel porters in farces to be played as if Mr Humprhies had retired from Grace Brothers and gone to work in an hotel? How often can/should you laugh at the image of two men being mistaken for having sex in the one short show? Why should the main characters be male (and white) in these kinds of productions – why couldn’t the porter or the Assassin, for instance, have been played by a non-Caucasian woman? Why are such questions reserved for productions of the classics? Is laughter a sufficient excuse for the reinforcement of dubious stereotypes?
Do these questions matter? Ultimately, yes they do. Do they affect the enjoyment of The Painkiller? No – although unexpected laughter is the key to successful farce. When the jokes are always of the expected kind, they can wear thin. Mixing it up is a great way to breathe life into a form which once dominated the West End and which has the potential to do so again. And unexpected, colour and gender blind casting could be a key to that.
Of course, the great interest of this production is in seeing two such completely different sorts of actors as Branagh and Bryden in the key roles. Do they have chemistry? Undeniably. Do they both do unexpected things? Unquestionably.
Bryden reveals a capacity for deeply felt passion and woeful self-pity which is both genuinely affecting and the springboard for a deal of outrageous comedy. His electric comic timing might be expected, as might his face pulling and vocal tics – but he holds his own against Branagh and, indeed, probably betters him in this genre. Slick and frenzied, potty and pondering, Bryden gives a top notch performance and forms a vibrant partnership with Branagh, a partnership that will be the enduring memory of this production.
For his part, Branagh revels in the chance to have a good time. Channelling Rex Harrison, Laurence Olivier and Donald Sinden, he creates a composite urbane swine with a delicious turn of phrase, a post-graduate degree in violent nonchalance/nonchalant violence and a fascinating capacity for improvisation. There is a moment with a policeman’s hand that is pure gold – and Branagh pulls it off with bravura flair. Once you see it, it will stay with you forever – much like the axe-passing moment inNoise Off, or Tom Edden’s clumsy waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors, it is inspired comic genius.
Mark Hadfield’s insinuating, exasperated, effeminate Porter is funny enough if you like that sort of thing. His most impressive moment comes with some fancy towel work and he has a solid line in shocked face laugh generation. But there is nothing fresh or unexpected about the turn; once you know there is a gay Porter, the rest follows. It is the same with Alex Macqueen’s Doctor Dent and Marcus Fraser’s Policeman – there is nothing bad about anything they do, but nor is there anything particularly surprising. It’s all efficient and each has moments of true excellence, but if chances had been taken, if stereotypes had not been thought necessary, the results may been greater.
In many ways, Claudie Blakley has the short straw. Her character, Michelle, Bryden’s ex and the Doctor’s current, is not particularly well drawn and really doesn’t make sense. One of the great mysteries (and truths) about farce is that it is rooted in truth: the characters may be wild but the situation realistic, or the other way around. Blakley does as good a job as can be expected given the writing, but the character is not believable, especially with regard to the relationship with Bryden’s character, and this undermines the comic potency.
Still, Foley’s adaptation and direction of The Painkiller pays dividends in uproarious laughter. This season at the Garrick has so far produced a stream of quality productions which show off the range and diversity of live theatre. Farce is foolishly regarded as “low-rent” by many. Actually it is a very difficult and supremely rewarding artform which requires incredible skill. When the stars align, a farce can be heavenly. As Bryden and Branagh here prove.