by Francis Veber
Adapted by Sean Foley
Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
The Garrick Theatre, London
Saturday 12th March 2016 14.30
Directed by Sean Foley
Set and costumes by Alice Power
Kenneth Branagh as Ralph
Rob Brydon as Dudley
Mark Hadfield as The Porter
Claudie Blakeley as Michelle
Alex MacQueen as Dent
Marcus Fraser as the Policeman
The third play in the Branagh season is a full-on French farce, though a modern one dating from 1969. Sean Foley adapted it (not simply “translated” it) and the same team of Foley, Branagh and Brydon did it at the opening season of the Lyric Theatre, Belfast in 2011. Belfast is Branagh’s hometown, and the Lyric is a lovely theatre. Branagh and Brydon have worked together since … Brydon appears in Branagh’s live action film of Cinderella, whose stars, Lily James and Richard Madden will be in the fourth play in this season, Romeo & Juliet.
The programme notes that the adaptation has been reworked for the London revival, and that the natural setting for farce is a proscenium stage like The Garrick.
Kenneth Branagh (Ralph), Rob Brydon (Dudley)
There are two modern hotel rooms, side by side with an interconnecting door and an invisible wall between them, its invisibility used to great effect. It’s a richly detailed modern luxury hotel, with one room in shades of lime green and the other in plum. Alice Power has created the sort of four star hotel where you wake at 3 a.m, put the lights on and shudder at the hotel’s concept of plush lime green and plum luxury. The first arrival is Dudley (Rob Brydon), a photographer from the Swindon Advertiser who has been assigned to photograph the arrival of a notorious gangster at the law court next to the hotel. However, Dudley is estranged from his wife, Michelle, who left him for her psychiatrist (Dr Dent). Dudley is suicidal and bent on hanging himself.
The next arrival is Ralph (Kenneth Branagh)… we don’t learn his name until the last few minutes. Ralph is a professional hit man, whose job is to shoot the gangster before he gets to court. His window is perfectly placed for this.
Ralph comforts Dudley
Ralph (aka “John Smith”) gets pulled into Dudley’s self-dramatizing suicide attempt by the Porter (Mark Hadfield). Dudley is a non-stop vocalizer, who is driving Ralph mad, and Ralph also has an assassination to carry out, and if he fails he will be killed horribly in turn. 2011 reviews added that the Belfast location added something to the tale, but here we’re in London. Ralph has no choice but to comfort Dudley, who then takes him to be a true friend. If he declines to help, the hotel will call the police to prevent Dudley killing himself, thus foiling Ralph’s plans.
After many shenanigans, Ralph gets knocked out by a metal roller blind, a key part of the play. A doctor has been called because of Dudley’s attempted suicide, who turns out to be Dent (Alex MacQueen, the burly seducer of Dudley’s wife. The doctor has never met Dudley, assumes the unconscious Ralph is the would-be suicide, and injects Ralph with a massive dose of animal tranquilizer … take it from there. Dudley’s estranged wife, Michelle (Claudie Blakeley) arrives, then a policeman and chaos ensues.
There is an incredible amount of physical action and business and indeed set pieces. Bits of set (roller blinds and lampshades) do their thing with precision timing and placing, as does the flash on Dudley’s camera. One of the funniest moments involves the policeman being knocked out and locked in a cupboard … it isn’t a farce if no one gets concealed in a cupboard. He comes awake and punches a hole in the door and his arm comes through, just as the porter arrives, and Branagh stands against the door pretending it’s his arm – and manages to do a little dance, both his arm and the policeman’s arm moving in time to hide the facts. I’ll skip telling you the next bit that happens. You need to see it.
Ralph and Dudley are on the bed. The porter (Mark Hadfield) gets the wrong idea,
Mark Hadfield’s porter is that key element in British seaside humour – the bystander / observer who gets the wrong end of the stick. I used seaside postcards to illustrate the male / female relationship in Hobson’s Choice in last Saturday’s review. Dudley and Michelle are in a similar relationship here. But in all seaside postcards, the innocent remark or event becomes funny / rude because of the surprise and shock of the person hearing or seeing who takes it the wrong way. This is Mark Hadfield’s role. He continually has to appear and find characters intertwined in compromising positions. The stress exacerbates his eczema.
Sean Foley says the part of the hitman needed a serious actor who can switch to comedy, which is why he thought of Branagh in 2011. On our way home from the play, we heard Ron Brydon on Radio 4’s Loose Ends talking about the play. He admitted that his casting as “a Welshman with personal problems” might not be surprising, but thought audiences would be surprised by Sir Kenneth Branagh in such an out and out farce. Well, not really. We saw Branagh in Harlequinade, the second in the season, and he has done a lot of Shakespearean comedy. This is genuine high-speed farce though … trousers descend to the ankles at a rate that even Brian Rix would have failed to match in the glory days of Whitehall farces, people smack into things, fall on top of each other, get locked in cupboards.
Rob Brydon is indeed playing a similar character, a Welshman with personal problems, to his stand-up routines (we saw his solo show in his early days), or the taxi driver in Marion and Geoff or Uncle Bryn in Gavin & Stacey. You get twin aspects too. He is cuckolded, like Geoff, but he also finds himself in embarrassing male on male situations, like Uncle Bryn. The role is “made to measure” for him, I suspect. i.e. it’s not “bespoke” (designed purely for him), but like a made-to-measure suit, pre-made components have been adjusted to fit. Since at least Shakespeare’s time, theatre audiences have found a Welsh accent in comedy intrinsically funny. It’s something to do with the rhythm, but also a combination of homely references, wide-eyed open-ness and a pinch of prurience. I never found it funny as a child, it was just the way my aunties and uncles talked … in Wales, you only have aunties, never aunts, and I think that’s part of it. Whatever, Brydon’s accent enhances the character, and mishearings (year / ear) are written in to fit. On the personal problems, one is that he can’t satisfy his wife, while her psychiatrist can. A truly memorable line is when he discusses his lack of ability with Michelle. Her withering comment is that “it was like trying to get a marshmallow into a piggy bank.” We wrote it down as soon as we came out.
Ralph is unconscious after Dr Dent (Alex MacQueen) jabs him
Kenneth Branagh is the producer, and its his season. You can see the attraction of the role. He has to go from cold and murderous and highly irritable, the serious bit, to being shot up with animal tranquilizer and zombified like a Heavy Metal musician on Mandrax. We see him trying to feel the tip of his own nose. There’s a funnier bit, but no joke spoiler. He finally forces Dr Dent to give him an antidote (the water squirted from the hypodermic hit my companion centre forehead in row F) which is amphetamine, so that he is constantly jerking and buzzing, then he gets a third dose of tablets, which seems to bring him back to normal but … Anyway, Branagh’s tranquillised, drooling, mouth-distorted assassin is a tour de force. The departure from classic farce is the effing and blinding, made even funnier because he can’t get the words out, so calls Dudley a “sock-cutter.” I’ll be using that one in future. The catchphrase is his mangled attempts to get the words out on “Leave me the fuck alone.” The script is very funny on this aspect, and it’s certainly a weapon that Brian Rix never had in his armoury.
Claudie Blakeley as Michelle, and Rob Brydon as her husband, Dudley
Dent and Michelle are perfectly cast too, with Dent towering over Dudley and Ralph, and Michelle dressed to the nines now she lives in Harley Street, but still with a Brummie accent.
Rob Brydon described how exhausting it is because of the sheer amount of physical work, all requiring precision timing and positioning. There is a lot of theatrical business, and its non-stop and often multi-layered. After Dudley’s failed hanging in the shower, the Porter’s background work, trying to clear up the water is fabulous stuff, but then there’s funny stuff going on at the front. The intercutting of two phone conversations which appear to combine, though Dudley is talking to his wife, and Ralph to his boss, is very clever writing, direction and acting.
Two separate phone conversations appear to make sense as one …
I’m tempted to type the star five times at the bottom, but here, a week in, I’m going to stop at four. I haven’t laughed as much in years, it’s true, but I have a couple of negatives. I think the sheer quantity of business / events takes away a looseness that comedy benefits from. There is too much going on for them to be able to pause and milk the laughs, for instance. There is too much to allow a little improvisation. The result is all the great business looks a tad contrived. On the other hand, you won’t see better dead knocked-out stage falls than Branagh in this, and he has to do a lot of them.
Marcus Fraser as the policeman. Ralph pretends he’s a photographer
I’m also going to be very picky on one aspect. There are a lot of door slams into the face, a given in the genre. A few weeks ago, the cast of Talking Scarlet’s farce/thriller A Secondary Cause of Death gave a masterclass in door slamming. Every time they did it, you winced in shock before you laughed. Here you just laughed. I felt the punches never quite looked real either, especially when Ralph beats up the policeman. Branagh was telegraphing them. I also thought the gun looked “light” in weight – but no doubt these modern ones are a lot lighter than the Lee Enfields we used as forced army cadets at school.
So “slightly lesser door slams” and slapstick fighting, and a certain lack of room to milk laughs, and adjust pausing just shades it below a five. But we are seeing it a week in. Though they did it before, it was five years ago on a different stage. It could well be that a further week or so will allow them to relax a little.
£5 as against the RSC/ National / Globe norm of £4. Two very good articles, Sean Foley on Veber and an interview with Foley and Power on this production. But that would be expected in the others too. A very slight case of milking the price, though not at Cumberbatch’s swingeing £8 level last year.
It’s the West End. They are doing cheap seats at £17.50 and all credit to them. But in the best seats at £95, this 85 minute production (no interval), is exceeding £1 a minute. The door slamming comparison made me aware as I wrote the review that this can cost FIVE times as much as Talking Scarlet’s touring production, which also had me laughing non-stop. It’s also 50% more than the RSC or National doing Shakespeare for twice the amount of time, with a cast of thirty plus. OK, in Broadway terms it’s still an unbelievably cheap bargain. In London terms though? I realise that if they underprice, the difference will be rapidly garnered by ticket agencies and scalpers.
It happens every time. Chris de Burgh’s The Lady in Red is a running gag, sung by Rob Brydon. It should be credited along with carpenters and transport in the programme. OK, they’re taking the piss out of it, but even so songwriters deserve credit.
LINKED REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG
Future Conditional, by Tamsin Oglesby, Old Vic, London
Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, Brighton Theatre Royal & tour