Theatre: A dose of slapstick to relieve the pain

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon in the crude and very funny The Painkiller

The Painkiller at Garrick Theatre is based on Francis Veber’s classic French farce Le Contrat, which premiered in Paris in 1969 and is probably best known in Britain as A Pain in the Ass, the highly successful 1973 film version with Lino Ventura and Jacques Brel.

The comedy is set in two adjoining hotel rooms. In one room is a professional hitman (Kenneth Branagh) who has an assignment to kill a criminal. In the other is a local press photographer (Rob Brydon), who is having marital problems and is intent on committing suicide, which proves to be an irritating distraction for the hitman. A doctor arrives to sedate the photographer but (a classic case of mistaken identity) tranquilises the hitman.

Director Sean Foley, who has adapted very freely, is a master when it comes to physical comedy and he rightly concentrates on the physical business. The slapstick is crude and very funny, but the attempt to give the characters a little more depth and make it a farce noire in the final moments comes too late and is a waste of time.

Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon synchronise and play off each other beautifully. Brydon’s comedy technique is a known factor. The surprise is Branagh, who proves to be a natural farceur. His body language is hilarious, one moment catatonic, the next as frisky as a colt. He enjoys the role enormously. Foley should direct him in a farce by that master of the genre, Georges Feydeau.

Florian Zeller, the multi-award-winning French novelist and playwright, is having a big success in Paris and London. Audiences who have enjoyed his plays, The Father and The Mother, can now catch up on one of his earlier works, The Truth, a witty and typically French boulevard comedy, at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Regular theatregoers will be surprised how much it owes to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.

Michel (Alexander Hanson) is having an affair with Alice (Frances O’Connor), the wife of his best friend Paul (Robert Portal), and is outraged when he learns that Paul has known all along and didn’t tell him. He thinks it is all right for him to be cheating on his wife and best friend and lying; but not all right for his wife (Tanya Franks), his best friend and his mistress to be cheating on him. Michel is an outrageous hypocrite and an absolutely terrible liar. Hanson is very funny. Zeller has written a companion piece, The Lie, which, one hopes, will also be translated.

The American Atomic Energy Commission began nuclear tests in the Nevada Desert in 1951. There was roughly one detonation every three weeks. It was good for tourism and Las Vegas benefited enormously. There were all-night parties on blast days and beauty contests were regularly mounted. Miss Atomic Bomb, an American musical written by three Brits – Adam Long, Gabriel Vick and Alex Jackson-Long – could have been a real blast had it been written 60 years ago, but a satire written so long after the event seems a bit odd; and at this distance in time it needs to be much sharper than the script being performed at St James Theatre.