A charming West End Theatre. A sumptuous, richly realistic set. Two big-name actors with undisputable comic pedigree. The Painkiller, Sean Foley’s adaptation of Francis Veber’s 1969 farce Le Contrat that originally ran in Belfast back in 2011, has everything it needs to be a thumpingly good night at the theatre. This is not, however, the next brilliant chapter of Kenneth Branagh’s season at the Garrick, but a 90-minute dud that promises much but delivers little.
Branagh himself stars as a nameless, besuited professional killer renting a well-placed room in a boutique hotel in order to point his high-calibre rifle out of the window and assassinate someone. Much-loved TV comedian Brydon is Dudley, the Calamity James in the room next to him: a clumsy, unsophisticated Welshman, driven to the point of suicide by his wife’s sudden decision to leave him. Brian’s disastrous attempt to hang himself from the shower head sparks an hour and a half of slamming doors, hastily hidden weaponry, and haphazard bids for oblivion, with Branagh’s hitman desperately trying to smooth things over in time to earn his bloody buck.
Branagh and Brydon put in competent but unexceptional performances, both rarely drawing more than a chuckle from the audience. Branagh is wonderfully physical, especially when accidentally injected with a syringeful of horse-tranquiliser, but his pained exasperation is too contrived to allow any real zing, and Brydon’s Brian – a wailing, self-pitying mess of a man – is appropriately distraught throughout but his constant misery soon becomes monotonous. The familiar cadence of Brydon’s exaggerated Welsh lilt even grows faintly irritating after the first half hour.
Any hint of chemistry between the two leads is dampened by the lack of polish to their dialogue; their relationship starts and stutters, but never sparkles. Somewhat unexpectedly, it is the supporting cast that provide the most laughs. Claudie Blakeley is gloriously vivacious as Brian’s newly empowered wife, Alex MacQueen is enjoyably self-important as her new lover, Dr Dent, and Mark Hadfield does fine work as a frazzled porter with limitless discretion.
Foley – who directs as well as adapts – has crafted a brisk and breathless production that is packed full of movement and astutely choreographed. Slickness is in short supply at times, which is disappointing, although it will presumably come with time. Alice Power’s chintzy cross-section set also deserves mention, principally for the sheer number of cushions, ever-decreasing in size, she has managed to stuff into it.
It’s difficult to tell how funny the play itself really is without having seen Veber’s French original, nor its three film adaptations, and not being able to appreciate the wit of Foley’s adaption to the fullest extent here either, thanks to Brydon and Branagh’s lukewarm performances. The piece’s essential structure – neighbouring hotel rooms, conflicting personalities, and a ticking clock – is certainly reliable and, even in this distinctly unremarkable production, moments of genuine humour do occasionally seep through. Perhaps if The Painkiller were revived with a more creative cast, it would not die a death as ignominious and unexpected as this.