The Painkiller | Garrick Theatre
Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon bring star power to this funny but painfully anachronistic comedy. It tells the tale of a contract killer whose life is thrown into disarray when he is allocated a hotel room adjoining that of a lovelorn, suicidal photographer.
It’s adapted from Le Contrat, a French farce written by Francis Veber, one of the great figures of French comedy in the last third of the 20th century, best known in the Anglophone world for the Hollywood adaptation of his film La Cage aux Folles, which was remade as The Birdcage. Le Contrat translates well into English, but the England it translates to is that of the 1970s; the England of Are You Being Served. Most of the jokes boil down to falling over, partially naked middle-aged men, and moderately camp homosexuals being terribly funny. For some, this kind antediluvian, inadvertently homophobic humour will be a deal-breaker, but disengage your critical faculties, and it is actually quite funny. The real problem – and perhaps this is inherent in the form – is that it’s all so predictable.
Thankfully, you can’t go too far wrong with well timed physical humour, and while you can occasionally see the actors cuing themselves up for a pratfall, a good nut-shot cures a multitude of ills. Alice Power’s set, which splits the stage down the middle into two separate rooms, seems like a throwback, but actually deserves special praise. Technically complex, and interactive, its realism lends credibility to the ridiculous antics. Brydon is a reliable comic presence and Branagh, the one-time enfant terrible of the British stage, while not a natural comedian, shows enough enthusiasm and willingness to be the butt of jokes to win over most skeptics.