The Painkiller

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon dominate the stage in the Lyric Theatre's adaptation of Francis Veber's comedy

The Painkiller, a Sean Foley adaptation of Francis Veber’s play, has been one of the most hotly anticipated events on the Northern Ireland theatrical calendar. Even more than the inaugural performance of The Crucible, this is the play to set the mood for the still-new Lyric Theatre.

Does it live up to expectations then? Actually, it surpasses them. The Painkiller as a play is good, excellent even. It is a witty farce that expertly balances low comedy and moments of genuine pathos. The set is simple – two identically furnished hotel rooms, one in green and one in pink – but cleverly structured and aesthetically pleasing.

However, it is the actors – their commitment, the little grace notes they give their characters – who elevate this play to something extraordinary.

Brian Dudley, played by comic actor Rob Brydon in his first major stage role, is a gormless, small-time photographer from Swindon. Lumpen and sad, he is putatively there to cover the courthouse arrival of a tell-all witness. In fact, he plans to make a last-ditch attempt to get his wife back. Failing that, he is going to kill himself.

Or try anyhow.

In the room next door, Kenneth Branagh’s Ralph (although no-one in the play actually calls him that) is a contrast of crisp, designer lines and machine-like precision. He is there with death on his mind too, only not his own.

In a beautifully understated, striking scene the two men in their mirror image rooms get ready for their respective tasks in perfect time. Unfortunately, a malfunctioning shutter and a poorly plumbed in shower-head throw a spanner in the works.

The adjoining door between the rooms is thrown open.

Desperate to keep a low profile, Ralph is forced to adopt the ill-fitting role of Good Samaritan. It comes complete with a simian, teeth-baring grimace that he seems to imagine is kind. Just generally desperate, Dudley decides this irascible, impatient stranger is his new best friend. No matter what anyone says, or does.

Reluctantly caught up in the farcical disaster zone that is Dudley’s life – horses, wives, jab-happy psychiatrists with wonky ethics – Ralph’s micro-managed, perfectly controlled world spirals out of the control. There’s a policeman in the wardrobe, the porter (played by Mark Hadfield) thinks he is getting up to all sorts and time is ticking away on his hit.

Branagh plays the frustrated hitman with a straight face – a spy-thriller star who has taken a wrong turn into farce. No matter how ridiculous his plight becomes – twitching, itching and Ministry of Silly Walking his way around the names – there is always a sliver of danger under the surface.

By comparison, Brydon’s Dudley is a man comprised completely of shallows. Every thought blazoned across his expressive, rubbery face and only room for one emotion at a time in his head. Unfortunately, for most of the play he isn’t a very nice man.

Pathetic, but not sympathetic, he emotionally blackmails his estranged wife and her partner, threatening suicide to get her to do what he wants. It appears that we are meant to root for him as the under-dog character, but emotional abuse isn’t really all that romantic, is it?

Although Brydon and Branagh dominate the play – constantly on stage – the secondary characters also deserve praise.

Mark Hadfield’s Porter whisks in and out of scenes with unflappable, though increasingly challenged, professionalism, his chirped ‘enjoy!’ as he leaves, a little more judgmental with every visit. (He is also the only male character who gets to keep all his clothes on.)

Claudia Harrison, as Dudley’s estranged wife Michelle, is brittle and frantic, driven past words by Dudley’s refusal to leave her alone. Her new partner isn’t much better though. Dr Dent (Stuart Graham) is poisonously smarmy, pompous and unethical. 

Meanwhile, Andy Moore’s policeman – who doesn’t even warrant a name – spends most of his time in the wardrobe, popping out only to be clobbered again by Ralph and Dudley. Still, of the three of them he does have the nicest underwear.

The audience gets to see a lot of the male actors in various fight-scenes, all of which end in compromising, misleading clinches. Low humour, maybe, but definitely funny. Particularly the scene where Ralph appears overcome by solitary lust, when someone has actually just grabbed his... you knows.

The actors are a little too enthusiastic in the fight scenes for their own good, though. Rob Brydon sports a rather nasty scratch on his back after being straddled by Stuart Graham on the bed. In character, of course. If they keep it up, by the end of the run they will be covered in bruises.

Director, and adapter, Sean Foley has done an excellent job translating Veber's play to the Lyric stage, never straying far from the essentials of Veber's work whilst updating with carefully judged changes. It could be argued that in places he was too faithful. As mentioned above, Dudley's emotional terrorism of his intimates did not translate well. Not of the character was meant to be a sympathetic, rather than damply sinister, buffoon.

The Painkiller is the second farce I have reviewed in as many weeks. The first was the massively acclaimed National Theatre production of One Man, Two Guvnors. It set the bar high, but The Painkiller is on the same level. It might not be quite as side-splittingly funny as One Man, Two Guvnors, but there is a lot more meat to its bones. Under the rough-and-tumble physical comedy and sexual mishaps is a serious narrative, a story that plucks the heartstrings even as you laugh at the antics. It might be low humour, but it isn't low brow.

Credit for bringing the Painkiller production together has to be given to the Lyric Theatre's management and, in particular, Artistic Director Richard Croxford. They have worked tirelessly to craft a massively impressive, and varied, inaugural programme for the Lyric Theatre, and The Painkiller is the pinnacle of that. So far, anyhow. Not only was it a coup to attract artists the calibre of Foley, Brydon and Branagh, the final result is a production worthy of the West End. Perhaps, whisper it, of Northern Ireland's new 'national theatre'.

The Painkiller can be seen at the Lyric Theatre until Oct 16. For more information check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On.