Exactly 30 years on from his TV acting debut in the Billy plays, Kenneth Branagh is back in Belfast to star in a comedy in the new-look Lyric Theatre.
The award-winning actor and director teams up with Welsh comedian Rob Brydon in Sean Foley's adaptation of the French farce The Painkiller.
It's a first of sorts for both men — Brydon, star of cult TV hits Gavin And Stacey and The Trip — has never acted in a professional theatrical production before, while Branagh, though no stranger to the Grand Opera House in Belfast, makes his debut on a Lyric Theatre stage.
And the pair were delighted with their new surroundings as they took time out from rehearsals yesterday to greet the Press, with Branagh declaring the new theatre “a class act”.
“It's a fantastic building,” said the north Belfast man. “It was described to me as a destination venue and now I see why.
“The Lyric is such a class act. They've taken great care of us. We had our meet and greet earlier in the week and they've been checking on our every need. That genuine concern for us is very classy.
“You can feel the sense of how much money has gone into it and the ownership in the city. You can also feel great energy.”
Brydon added: “It's such an impressive building. There's so much audience space, and for the cast as well. I will look forward to coming here every day.”
There were occasional glimpses of the comic timing to expect in The Painkiller when Brydon was asked how he felt about working alongside one of the UK's best actors.
“And Ken,” he immediately piped up, much to Branagh's amusement.
Brydon said he had been wanting to work in theatre for many years but had been waiting for the right project to come along.
“I was hoping to get something good and this is perfect,” he said.
“Mind you, I was shocked to discover it's a comedy. I've been playing it straight so far.”
Brydon described working with the Bafta-winning Branagh as a “delight and pleasure”.
“We're getting on well,” he said. “I'm learning more now than I did when I was studying for my |A-levels.” Though when pressed by Branagh on how well he'd done
back then, Brydon quipped: “Well, that resulted in a terrible failure.”
The Painkiller, originally penned by Francis Veber, is the story of two men — Brydon's suicidal Brian and Branagh's hitman Ralph — who cross paths through an adjoining door of two long hotel rooms, causing chaos.
The cast also includes Mark Hadfield, Stuart Graham, Claudia Harrison and Andy Moore, who joined the leads on yesterday's panel, along with Sean Foley.
Branagh, best known for his Shakespearean roles and the title role of the BBC version of Swedish detective series Wallander, told the Press conference that he'd been sent the script by Foley some 18 months ago and thought it captured the comedy brilliantly. He said he'd been in talks with the Lyric's Richard Croxford for some time about staging a play in the new theatre and by securing Brydon for the role, everything had come together.
“For me it was a sure thing, it was meant to be,” he said.
It's not the first time Branagh and Foley have worked together. In 2001, his first collaboration with Foley, the West End production The Play What I Wrote, won an Olivier Award for Best Comedy.
When asked if The Painkiller could earn them a second gong, Foley replied: “Primarily, we are here to try and entertain. If that goes well, who knows?”
The Painkiller runs at the Lyric Theatre from September 23 to October 16