In his short story, Who Died and Left You in Charge, Alexi Sayle writes of the transvestite Clive who is on a mission to kill the first cyclist he encounters.

Clive becomes Cicely in Transformations, a cross-dressing shop near Euston Station where provincial businessmen can be transformed into nervous women.

“Being Cicely out for a walk was, Clive imagined, rather like being a slightly forgotten celebrity, Mel Smith perhaps, or Kenneth Branagh,” writes Sayle.

Well, Kenneth Branagh is less ‘slightly forgotten” after his return to the stage in his native Belfast in a production of Francis Veber’s farce, Painkiller alongside the debut-making Rob Brydon.

The Lyric Theatre was packed last night as you would expect as people came along to see their favourite acting son, star of the groundbreaking Billy plays (until the Hole in the Wall Gang satirised the life out of them), critcially acclaimed adaptations of Shakespeare and much more besides.

A full house was also guaranteed by the prescence of Brydon, most famous for his role in Gavin and Stacey who was making his stage debut.

The vehicle for the return of Branagh and the first coming of Brydon was The Painkiller, a farce written by French dramatist and film-maker, Francis Veber who, by the way, also wrote the international blockbuster, La Cage aux Folles.

Painkiller tells of the suicidal Brian Dudley whose wife has just left him for a psychologist. When Brian decides to end it all in a hotel room, he encounters someone else with death on his mind – an Armani-clad hitman called, em, John Smith.

What follows is 80 minutes of mayhem, mistaken identity, rifle fire and Lady in Red. To pull it off, this requires tight direction, top class acting and split-second comic timing from a cast who are totally in tune with each other and that is what we got at the Lyric.

We all know of his acting ability but Branagh was a particular surprise with a wonderful repertoire of silly walks that would make John Cleese guffaw. This on top of a character who swung from vicious killer to drug-induced loony.

Brydon is never less than engaging in whatever he does and while he might not have the greatest range in the world, he is a fine comic actor and as the love-lorn Brian, he proved that he can hold his own on the professional stage in the company of top career actors.

The supporting cast were faultless too with Mark Hadfield as the bellboy, Claudine Harrison as the wife stolen away by Stuart Graham (whom I last saw in Steve McQueen’s Long Kesh film, Hunger), and local actor Andy Moore as a policeman with a tendency to get hit over the head a lot.

The Painkiller is a laugh a minute farce that will brighten up these dark, windy Autumnal nights. Welcome home, Ken, diolch yn fawr, Rob.

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