Two men arrive at a generic city hotel. The first is Dudley, a self-professed loser whose wife of eight years has run off with her psychiatrist. The second, Ralph, is a ruthless trained killer tasked with an assassination on location in the hotel. Checked into adjoining rooms, the trajectories of these two polarised individuals cross with hilarious results. All hell breaks loose, a chain reaction of ridiculous events, slapstick interaction and bawdy misunderstandings, culminating in an unlikely but charming friendship. This modern farce is the sort of joyful performance that one wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any friend or family member.
this is a thoroughly enjoyable show with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments.
Brydon warmed into his performance. Initially at risk of rushing his lines and anticipating the jokes, playing off the whoops and cheers of a supportive audience he soon relaxed into the part of the melodramatic and overly-emotional Dudley. Branagh was sublime as the more tightly-wound and explosive Ralph. His performance was dynamic and consistently high-energy; strutting, crawling, sashaying, creeping and bounding about the stage with wild abandon, he wrung every last drop of humour he could from the role. When injected with ketamine (don’t ask – this is but one of the many ridiculous happenstances in The Painkiller), he moulded his face into a diverse assortment of wacky and gruesome expressions and delivered an astonishing range of increasingly bizarre and ludicrous voices. It was a one-man masterclass, showcasing everything Branagh has to deliver. The stand-out performance, however, was given by Mark Hadfield as the mincing porter whose ‘Carry On’ demeanour and raised eyebrows created some of the most memorably uproarious moments of the show.
The Painkiller is marketed as a ‘darkly hilarious’ production, and while hilarity was evident in spades, darkness was conspicuously absent. There are some heavy themes among the trouser-dropping and door-slamming, loneliness and dislocation to name but two. However, these weightier subjects were casually brushed to one side. There was a lack of balance, and some shade was required to offset the lightness of the comedy, which felt, at times, relentless. After the second instance of rectally-injected drugs it became clear that this performance, which started on one level, would stay there. The Painkiller would have benefitted from a little more depth of emotion or characterisation to create three-dimensional figures. This was hastily attempted in the conclusion of the play, in which Dudley and Ralph finally band together in mutual respect and friendship, but this felt rushed, inorganic and could have been developed more sensitively.
Regardless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable show with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. I have rarely heard an audience guffaw so unabashedly, and it was a delight to leave the theatre feeling genuinely entertained. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the experience of Kenneth Branagh swaggering across the Garrick stage in only a pair of suit trousers and braces.