Slapstick enthusiasts will love this Branagh and Brydon farce: The Painkillers reviewed

Plus: With a dozen writers rather than one NotMoses at the Arts Theatre might have been an excellent revue

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

The Painkiller

Garrick, until 30 April


Arts Theatre, until 14 May

Sir Ken’s excellent West End residency continues with a sugar-rich confection. Sean Foley has adapted and updated an elderly French farce about an assassin who befriends a needy depressive. Hitman Ralph rents a hotel suite overlooking a courtroom where his target is due to make an appearance. The neighbouring room is occupied by a mopey Welshman, Brian, who wants to hang himself from the light socket. Ralph discovers Brian’s plan and realises that Brian’s death will fill the hotel with cops and ruin his assassination attempt. So Ralph must save Brian from suicide. It’s a pretty clunky scenario and the logistics are frankly incredible because the design postulates two adjacent single rooms linked by a communicating door. Hotels aren’t built that way. But the show sidesteps these improbabilities by sheer force of character. It reaches a welcoming hand into the stalls and invites us all to come aboard for the ride.

Two brilliant and very different showmen lead the party. Rob Brydon has a wonderful line in careworn charm as the hyperactive Taffy unable to cope with an expired marriage. His ex-wife, now nesting with a brutish doctor, enters the action and Brian tries to win her back. We learn that sexual anxiety has driven him to attend a ‘premature ejaculation’ class. ‘And even then you left early,’ says his wife. Her new lover, the doctor, injects Ralph with a sedative that scrambles his brain and robs his speech of intelligibility. So the jet-setting killer is reduced to a stammering wreck urgently seeking an anti-dote to the toxin. Branagh, always game for a laugh it seems, gives an extraordinary display of fist-swinging, groin-clutching, semi-naked slapstick. Mark Hadfield offers superb support as a neurotic porter and he proves yet again that he’s one of the finest physical comedians in the business.

Just occasionally the script’s inventiveness falters. The arrival of a huge cop creates problems because he’s simply too vast to be flattened by the soft double whammy delivered by Branagh. Though kids will love this high-class circus act, not everyone will find it captivating. For a slapstick enthusiast like me it’s a joy to see a theatrical icon like Branagh carrying off burlesque with the aplomb of Sacha Baron Cohen. On this showing Sir Ken would make an excellent James Bond but only if the franchise were to ditch its earnestness and return to its comedy-of-manners heyday in the 1970s when Roger Moore (the finest 007 ever) brought a hint of Noël Coward’s debonair insouciance to the thuggish, shoot-’em-up genre.

Budget film director Gary Sinyor has had an idea. Spoof the Old Testament using quick-fire sketches based on the parallel stories of Moses and his long-lost brother NotMoses. Mel Brooks or the Marx Brothers might have considered the same motif. Whether they’d have brought it to fruition is another matter. Revues are usually the work of many hands but Sinyor, who also directs, has entrusted the script to a talent he holds in high esteem: himself. A brave choice for a show whose appeal rests entirely on the quality of the gags.

The Marx Brothers used to road-test jokes on dozens of live audiences before committing a single line to celluloid. Each sketch would be performed and tweaked 20 times or more before it was filmed. And they hired professional writers to supplement their native talent. Sinyor lacks those resources and the script reflects the man-hours invested in its creation. About one gag in five really works. That’s a decent ratio for a solo writer but for a West End show it’s a little threadbare and it leaves long chunks of two or three minutes idling past without a sniff of a laugh. Some of the jokes are subtle and original. An Egyptian wide boy promotes cumulative speculation in pharaonic tombs: pyramid selling. NotMoses’s parents worry that their son may be gay and when he vows to remain single until his people are free, his father shrugs, ‘This is how the rumours start.’

The script is peppered with regional speech variations. NotMoses’s parents are Scousers. Abraham’s son, Isaac, is from south Wales and Esau’s brother, Jacob, is an Aussie. If Sinyor finds accents from outside the Home Counties hilarious he holds a view that’s not widely shared. Excellent performances give the show a high level of polish. Thomas Nelstrop looks marvellously daft and dreamy as the real Moses and he captures the mock-heroic tone perfectly. Jasmine Hyde’s Egyptian princess turns regal pomposity into a gossamer web of fragile silliness and Joe Morrow, an established London cabaret star, adds all the camp oomph he can. Which is plenty. These are eye-catchingly good comedians. With a dozen writers rather than one this might have been an excellent revue. Instead it’s just a bunch of so-so sketches.

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