For the second time in six months, a star known for his serious acting has amazed me with his skill at comedy. Just as when I saw David Morrissey in The Hangmen, I was surprised to find that Kenneth Branagh’s talent for farce was the outstanding feature of The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre.
He plays a hired killer who gets drawn into helping a suicidal photographer. This being a farce, he ends up the victim of many misfortunes including suffering from the effects of a tranquilliser. Branagh’s portrayal of exasperation, his slurred and mixed up words, his comedy walk were a revelation from an actor I had previously admired in Shakespeare and Chekhov.
It helped that his opposite number was Rob Brydon, who was as funny as you would hope. Thanks to them and the rest of an excellent cast, there were times when I, along with most of the audience, was crying with laughter.
Considerable credit should go to the French writer Francis Veber and Sean Foley who recently adapted this now vintage play. Like all good farces, it was built on step-by-step misunderstandings that lead logically to a ridiculous conclusion. Any moments when you might question the likelihood of something happening were lost in the sheer speed, another vital element in farce.
Taking the whole thing seriously, in other words not being deliberately funny, is another key factor in successful farce. In this respect, I couldn’t fault any member of the cast. The brilliant Mark Hadley as the confused Hotel Porter attempting to carry out his job in the face of an increasingly bizarre situation deserves a special mention.
Alice Power’s set too was perfect. Two identical hotel rooms with an adjoining door and an imaginary wall split the stage into two halves. We the audience could see what was going on in each room but the participants couldn’t. It was as crucial to making the farce work as any of the characters.
The Painkiller may have been very funny but it still doesn’t hit the heights of my all-time favourite farce- Noises Off by Michael Frayn- another play where the set is vital to the comedy. I am looking forward to a new production at The Nuffield Theatre in June.