Friday, 18 March 2016

Review The Painkiller

The Painkiller
by Francis Veber adapted by Sean Foley

A Shot In The Arm

An assassin hired to take out a gangster trial witness  in one hotel room and a man deserted by his wife about to take his own life  in the next - this could be the dramatic premise of a film noir beloved of French cinema.

But throw in a camp hotel porter, a snobbish wife and psychiatrist lover complete with hypodermic needle, a policeman in the cupboard and throw a character out of the window - and what do you have, but French farce?

Originally written in 1969 by Francis Veber, the stage farce Le Contrat (The Contract) by 1973 became hit film L'Emmerdeur (A Pain In The Arse), then remade in English as Billy Wilder's last film, Buddy Buddy, before the writer himself revamped it in a new stage and film version in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

It's the last version to which director Sean Foley seems to have given an English setting and mildly updated for The Painkiller, first seen at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2011, and now part of the season run by Kenneth Branagh and his theatre company.

Branagh himself takes the role of the hitman who finds adjoining hotel rooms the equivalent of a pair of handcuffs as his fate is bound up with that of local newspaper photographer Dudley (Rob Brydon).

And just as film noir can be taken down by French farce, the life of the suave assassin (whose name, we eventually learn, is Ralph) can be thrown into disarray and overwhelmed by the failed suicide and cuckold provincial in the neighbouring room.

While French farce is by its nature a self-conscious exercise - who else but the French would expend so much intellectual exertion and exact mathematics on coming up with a credible way for powerful men to lose their trousers? - TLT and her own manacled automobile were not wholly convinced by this anglicized piece.

Branagh makes an elegant, precise Ralph, a thoroughbred stallion brought down by a pack horse, as he lurches physically and mentally from one cover up to another, from one dose of ketamine to a dose of amphetamines ...

And Brydon's Dudley as the little guy is a suitable catalyst for chaos as the Maison des Lits turns into Chienlit, ably supported by Claudie Blakley as his adulterous and social-climbing wife Michelle, Alex MacQueen as her domineering syringe-happy psychiatrist lover, Mark Hadfield as the camp hotel porter and Marcus Fraser as the plain clothes policeman drawn into the hotel fray.

However with its mane shorn of its colonial past, part-militarised police force and aristocratic pretensions within a republic, we wondered whether the farce had lost some of its logic, political bite and, yes, excruciating but cathartic pain in this British adaptation.

And at  the moment it doesn't seem to have entirely found yet its frenetic farce rhythm and needs some speedier playing. But with this fixable reservation, at 90 minutes without a break with some elegant visuals and a cast of fine actors, it still held the attention throughout. An amber light from TLT.

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