There’s a bit towards the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – the film, not the book – where Harry and Ron stand with Gilderoy Lockhart over the entrance to the Chamber, the gaping hole left by the taps in Myrtle’s toilet. Harry looks down and tells Lockhart to go first. ‘Now, boys what good will it do?’ says Lockhart. Ron replies, ‘Better you than us.’ And then Kenneth Branagh has a lovely little comic moment, realising the stupidity of his question and understanding that he’s at the mercy of these two pesky wizards, as he mumbles ‘Um… obviously, yes.’ Lockhart was my introduction to Branagh; it’s no surprise that he’s an excellent comic actor.
And in Sean Foley’s adaptation of Francis Veber’s 1971 play Le Contrat, Branagh gets to fully flaunt his sharp timing and physical skill as an uptight hitman whose contract killing, to be executed from a hotel window, is interrupted by suicidal neighbour Dudley (Rob Brydon). Dudley is a sad-sack photographer from Swindon, whose wife has left him for her therapist and Brydon plays him with big, brash broadness. This latest episode in the Branagh takeover of the Garrick lacks the depth of the other programmed plays, but it’s a jolly night out.
A combination of Foley’s adaptation and Brydon’s incessant noise make Dudley one of the most irritating characters in theatre. The few moments when Brydon isn’t speaking, and the many moments when another character is desperately begging for him to shut up, draw attention to the unwavering drone of this needy man. It’s kind of sad, but mostly annoying. How do you write an annoying character without him actually being annoying?
We’ve laughed at hitmen before – Grosse Pointe Blank is a great example – and there’s something about the grimness of that particular metier that lends itself well to dark comedy. The Painkiller almost makes it look fluffy, a profession made even more absurd when a huge sniper rifle is constantly hidden and removed from among piles of velour scatter cushions. There’s a tiny challenge here, too: if it’s ok to laugh at death inflicted by another person, is it ok to laugh at death inflicted by the self? Dudley’s suicidal compulsions are quite lightly treated, playing into the way that black comedy is made light and frothy.
There’s nothing new here. Nothing at all. We have an odd couple in the private, uptight Branagh and the open, effusive Brydon; we have the requisite elements of farce: misunderstandings and mistaken identities, slamming doors, pants round ankles; we have the camp concierge, comic hitman, frustrated deeds and frantic misdeeds. It’s all very well-trodden ground – and the dialogue, featuring a couple of witty one-liners, is nothing special, merely setting up plot points and getting actors from a to b. Instead, the joy is in seeing a group of skilled performers just go for it. The physical timing is nigh on impeccable, doors bang in unison and the galloping pace doesn’t drop for a second. While the plot and the characters are stitched together by store-cupboard ingredients – stock types to a tee – the execution is what’s interesting.
Foley’s direction – an act of reciprocity after Branagh directed him in the farce The Play What I Wrote in 2001 – and the sparky, fizzing performances by Branagh and Brydon make this a load of fun. There’s no great subtlety in the script, but it’s enough just to watch these performers throw themselves around like pliant ragdolls as they run from room to room. Thank god for interconnecting doors; where would farce be without them?
The Painkiller is on until 30th April 2016. Click here for more details.