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The Painkiller review – Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon star at the Garrick Theatre, London

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon in The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon in The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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The title is probably a hostage to fortune. But while there may be times when the cast could do with an injection of anxiety-suppressing Xanax, it won’t have its audience reaching for the Nurofen (even though one of the characters does get dosed with ketamine).

Kenneth Branagh plays a hired hitman, sent to a hotel room with a direct view of the entrance to a courthouse where a high profile case is being held, on a mission to take out a key witness.

Meanwhile, in the adjoining hotel room, a staff photographer from a local Swindon newspaper is there to report on the trial while trying to lure his wife of eight years to come back to him – she’s left him for a psychiatrist – and when she won’t, he tries to commit suicide. He’s played by Rob Brydon with a pained innocence and bafflement about the reasons why his relationship failed.

The two men are set on a dizzyingly farcical collision course: one wants to kill, the other wants to die, and their plans are repeatedly thwarted by the other. It’s a high-stakes set-up, and master stage comedy director Sean Foley milks it for all its worth. Foley, who has also adapted Francis Veber’s French comedy, was himself previously directed by Branagh when Foley co-starred in the West End and Broadway hit, The Play What I Wrote, and like that production, this also wears its theatricality on its sleeve.

One of the real pleasures of the production – first seen in Belfast in 2011 – is to watch Branagh, such an accomplished serious actor, playing so loose and easily with physical comedy; there’s one truly blissful moment in which he dances with the arm of a policeman locked in a cupboard. There’s also some more juvenile jokes when he’s seemingly caught in compromising positions with Brydon’s character as the hotel porter keeps stumbling in on them (a very funny Mark Hadfield).

While I laughed freely and often, there’s nothing subtle about this short production. But as a complement to the more serious fare that Branagh’s West End season has offered, it provides welcome light relief.

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Inconsequential but accomplished theatrical farce that sees Kenneth Branagh on fine comic form