Richard III, The Crucible, Sheffield

Back on the boards, Branagh moves effortlessly from music hall to murder
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Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious spring in Sheffield where the Crucible Theatre is enjoying a box-office bonanza.

It's 10 years since the multi-tasking Kenneth Branagh trod the boards. And here he is breaking his self-imposed exile for Michael Grandage, artistic director-elect of the Donmar Warehouse, who is a dab-hand at luring screen luminaries to the North, as we saw last year in the commercially and artistically successfulEdward II, staring Joseph Fiennes.

Trusting in the narrative drive of the piece and admirably light on "concepts", this powerful production begins with a startling spectacle that looks, at first blush, like a kinky advertisement for Calvin Klein male underwear.

Branagh's Richard is discovered in his knickers arched over backwards and strapped into a rack-like machine that's clearly designed to help correct the character's physical deformities. It's a novel position from which to deliver that opening soliloquy. He's again found clamped to this rack on the eve of the final battle when the ghosts of his victims exploit his captive state.

In between these two episodes, buckled into a corset and calliper, Branagh gives a very funny performance as a Richard who plays up to the audience like a nippy music hall comedian and who treats the other people on stage to the kind of hilariously bare-faced hypocrisy that paralyses opposition. He's exceptionally adept at making even a line of dialogue sound like an aside and at entering into a deadpan snigger with the punters behind the backs – or before the very eyes – of the rest of them.

His reaction to one of his little nephews ("so wise, so young, they say do ne'er live long") is pronounced in a way that might well win him this year's WC Fields Child Mentoring Award.

On television recently, Branagh impersonated another deeply evil historical figure: General Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's second-in-command who masterminded the logistics of the Final Solution. It was a chilling performance: all smooth, brisk charm that offered glimpses of the lethal icebergs floating in the depths of his eyes It was also, rightly, purely filmic, calibrated to a man whose evil was not theatrical.

By contrast, Richard is self-consciously a creature of the stage. A potential problem is that, in the continuous long-shot of theatre, Branagh is too mild-looking to cut a compellingly creepy figure. The production instead plays to his considerable strengths as a stage comedian, darkening this aspect in the jolting suddenness with which he can switch from mocking matiness to brutal violence.

Let's hope he doesn't leave it another 10 years.