The Painkiller, Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Belfast hails return of its favourite son
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The Independent Culture

This is a very funny play with a number of utterly uproarious moments served up at a relentlessly furious pace.

But the main fascination throughout is leading man Kenneth Branagh, who offers a lesson in how high talent can play low farce. Known best for his classical roles, he delivers a sustained demonstration of inspired clowning, somehow bringing real subtlety to slapstick.

Some of the humour is very broad indeed for Northern Ireland, and Belfast has of course more than its fair share of puritans. A few of the audience, watching the sight of men burying their heads in other men's laps, sometimes seemed more disconcerted than amused.

But everyone wanted to see Branagh, the local boy who 30 years ago began his career in this very city. He did not disappoint. In the opening moments he was a suave, beautifully dressed hit man, deadly, in perfect and total control, about to carry out a clinical shooting.

But then he gets tangled up with a tiresome, suicidally depressed Welshman, played by the excellent Rob Brydon, before somehow receiving an injection of tranquiliser that was intended for Brydon.

This transforms him from chilling assassin to a staggering, dazed, over-medicated victim suddenly out of control. His staggering is world-class: perhaps it includes little elements of Mr Bean, Frank Spencer and John Cleese's funny walks, but it transcends them all to reach new heights of inventive clowning.

A further ill-advised dose of medicine then renders him hyper, leading to a great deal of athletic leaping about.

Branagh has hailed director Sean Foley as "a master of physical comedy who has got us doing all sorts of stretching exercises," while calling the play "pure silly comedy with not one special effect or visual effect."

In the end, of course, Branagh never gets to carry out his assassination and Brydon never gets to kill himself. Along the way they, and others in the cast, get de-bagged; in fact, the amount of trouser-dropping would make Brian Rix blush.

There is also a lot of prancing about and fighting, copious comic misunderstandings, and a hotel porter who keeps appearing at the door only to be increasingly shocked at the compromising situations he finds Branagh and co caught in.

The production is staged at a Lyric Theatre which has triumphantly risen from the ashes of near-dilapidation. Its blend of brick, glass, steel, concrete and timber, perched commandingly on a riverbank, announces to the world that culture is most definitely on offer in Belfast.

To 12 November (020 7378 1713)