Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Opened 29 September, 2011
One of the acid tests of farce players is how well they handle misfortune or accident. Francis Veber’s comedy centres on a nebbish and an assassin in adjoining hotel rooms opposite a courthouse at which a major trial is about to commence. Part of the business concerns a window shutter that sticks when fully down. On press night, second time around, it really did stick. Three different actors tried discreetly to fix it, then gave up. Suddenly remarks were being made about the bathroom window instead, and it began to look as if the hitman would have to engage in his most sinister business offstage; then muffled bangs were heard, and after 10-15 minutes the blind rose and we caught sight of a stagehand fleeing along the supposedly sixth-floor window ledge. “That was Maintenance,” remarked the porter. Yet throughout this episode neither Kenneth Branagh as the rifleman nor Rob Brydon as the boring nobody missed a beat; the farcical temperature contained to rise steadily, hitting a rolling boil shortly after the problem was solved.
It is easy to forget Branagh’s record in comedy. He won an Olivier award in 2002 for best comedy as director of The Right Size’s show The Play What I Wrote and now returns to his native city under the direction of the lankier half of that double act, Sean Foley (who also adapts Veber’s script). It has clearly been a fruitful relationship: Branagh has confidence in Foley’s comic instincts and has learned from him not just a penchant for extreme silliness but a crispness and precision in performing it, the sort of skill whose absence I regularly lament when reviewing physical comedy. Here we get rubber-kneed walks and ludicrous voices as his character is first mistakenly sedated then injected with amphetamines to revive him, and some finely choreographed violence. Branagh sells it all expertly by seeming to take it all utterly seriously.
Brydon, playing the little man who unexpectedly finds his mettle, has the majority of the verbal and character comedy but little to match this business, apart from a moment which deliberately and self-consciously deploys twice in rapid succession the farce cliché of being caught in what looks to be highly embarrassing sexual activity. The main pair work well together, and the amount of comedy packed into 80 minutes without interval ensures we do not feel short-changed, even when they are battling against the curse of shutters.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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