If ever a play was incorrectly titled, it has to be The Painkiller. Far from killing pain, it positively induces it. I cannot remember when last I sat through a West End comedy squirming in agony for 90 long minutes as this witless French farce by Francis Veber (adapted by Sean Foley) crash landed, having failed to induce in me a single laugh all evening. Honestly, I’ve had more fun at Wagner’s Parsifal, which at five hours is short by comparison.
A hit in Paris (which tells you much about the state of their contemporary theatre), it purports to be a classic farce, set in two adjoining hotel bedrooms, simultaneously occupied by an assassin called Ralph (Kenneth Branagh) in one of them and a Welshman called Dudley (Rob Brydon) in the other. That’s the basic idea, and to be fair, it's a promising concept.
Clearly, though, something has been lost in translation. At least I assume it has. Could the original have been quite as bad? Most of the great classic farces offer a simple situation that begins credibly enough before slowly piling equally credible complications one on top of he other until, after spiralling out of control, everything is finally resolved. Not so here. There is nothing remotely plausible about anything that happens on the stage of the Garrick, and an air of desperation sets in as soon as Ralph and Dudley’s paths inevitably cross.
Looking after the needs of both men is the hotel’s rather camp porter (Mark Hadfield), who, as the play progresses, becomes the butt of several sight gags in which the decidedly odd couple he’s attending are found in sexually compromising situations that happen to be totally innocent. Ralph is there to assassinate, from his bedroom window, a gangster who’s on his way to court to spill the beans. Dudley is ostensibly there to photograph the trial.
But complications ensue, the main one being that Dudley, whose wife Michelle (Claudie Blakley), due to her husband’s poor performances in bed, has left him for a psychiatrist (Alex Macqueen). After desperately trying, and failing, to win her back, Ralph decides life isn’t worth living and intends to commit suicide by tying a rope to the showerhead in the hotel bathroom, succeeding only in bringing down part of the bathroom ceiling. Both Michelle and the psychiatrist make brief appearances, and completing the cast is a local policeman who is bashed about a great deal and spends much of his time in Ralph’s bedroom closet.
It must have been tempting for Branagh, whose theatre company is presenting this dreadful farrago, to lighten up somewhat and have a bit of fun in an undemanding piece of boulevard froth. But how on earth could he have thought lines like “butter wouldn’t melt in his underpants” were funny? Branagh is a very fine actor indeed, but comedy in general and farce in particular aren’t his strong points, and to compensate for a lack of funny bones he resorts to funny voices, silly walks and perfunctory bits of slapstick. Too, too depressing.
Brydon is a more natural comedian, but he too is ultimately defeated by material more wooden than Alice Power’s set.
The play is directed by Foley, who, despite the frenetic pace at which he moves it, cannot prevent this from being the longest 90 minutes I think I have ever spent in a West End theatre. To call The Painkiller a turkey would be an insult to poultry.