Theatrical farce is a tough nut to crack, especially since Noises Off set the benchmark for finely timed mishaps so high. To set up then sustain the hysteria, the situation has to be plausible, and each tightening of the theatrical corkscrew believable even as it becomes ever more outrageous and (for the actors) frequently courageous.
Before the end of The Painkiller Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon have appeared in various stages of undress (flattering for Sir Kenneth, less so for Brydon), simulated gay sex, and been respectively reduced to a catatonic wreck and a kindly Welsh loser trying to put his life back together.
They are guests staying in adjoining rooms at a hotel, both with professional duties related to a trial taking place at the courthouse opposite. Branagh is a professional hitman, who is there to take out a key witness from his room with a clear view of the courthouse entrance. Brydon is a more humble staff photographer on a local Swindon newspaper there to cover the trial. But if Branagh's character is there to kill, Brydon's wants to die — and trying and failing to persuade his estranged wife to give him a hearing, he tries (and of course fails) to commit suicide.
Branagh becomes his unwitting carer — all the while still trying to execute his own mission. Sean Foley directs a precision-engineered production with lots of great physical comedy. Who knew that Branagh was such an adept comedian? And that Brydon could match him for tragic depth?
It's the opposites that work here. And it's a lot of fun, though its undeniably also very slight. But who can blame the Branagh season for wanting to go light and fluffy, amidst a heavy-weight season that has already seen The Winter's Tale and has Romeo and Juliet and The Entertainer to come? Meanwhile, if you want nothing more than a mindless 90 minutes of laughter, The Painkiller could be just the ticket.
"Foley’s direction...is suitably fast and furious. It may not be to everyone’s taste but, in these sombre times, I found the show offered a restorative tonic."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"There’s not an opportunity for a gag, visual or verbal, that’s passed up."
Dominic Cavendish The Telegraph
"The proceedings are enjoyable but rarely generate the requisite helpless hilarity and have a rather dated feel."
Paul Taylor for The Independent