Review: Breathing Corpses

Breathing Corpses Review 

This play is dark, dark, dark. In fact, it all revolves around death, and the way death impacts on the lives of those confronted by it. Once again, the excellent Pranksters have proved that they can be relied upon to challenge their audiences with thought provoking and exceedingly intriguing theatre. Laura Wade’s play was first produced in 2005 at the Royal Court Theatre. As well as receiving three awards, it was nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre.

The initial scene is set in a hotel room, where the lovely chambermaid Amy discovers the body of a guest who has committed suicide.

The Back Room of the Star is a fine venue for intimate theatre. All is black, as it serves also as a music venue. I have not yet seen a play there that has not been enhanced by being in this space. One enters full of anticipation!

A dark curtain formed the backdrop. A bed emerged from this for the hotel room scene. Chambermaid Amy’s cleaning materials container, her rubber gloves, and a chair were all else. For Jim’s container business office, 2 chairs were produced and a small desk. For the scene in Kate’s kitchen the same furniture was placed somewhere else. All very simple, but the scene changes carried out by the actors, who were seated in the front row, were in themselves fascinating to watch. A door was lugged about in one scene, and a fine, superbly crafted kitchen knife made its presence felt in the final scene.

Some very evocative music I cannot identify, blues I think, set the scene, and accompanied the scene changes. Lighting was very effective throughout.

Chambermaid Amy entered the hotel room with her box of cleaning materials, rubber gloves at the ready, to discover a corpse in the bed. Her second such discovery, as it turned out. She was therefore shocked, but not too shocked, and sat down to have a heart-to-heart talk with the dead man about her fears of the sack, her rather nondescript life, about his life, and what might have brought him to this distressing end. She made no attempt to summons the hotel manager, and found herself guiltily reading his rather nice, unsealed suicide note, which mentioned something about a woman in a box. This was a great performance by Alice Gray, understated, real, we understood the complexities of her character, her predicament, and her aspirations well.

We then moved on to a self-storage company’s premises. Jim, the owner, was chatting to his assistant Rachel when his nice wife Elaine appeared. Suffering despondency due to ‘empty nest’ syndrome and lack of any meaningful occupation, she apologised for turning up at the office. They seemed a nice couple living a fairly humdrum existence. Rachel pointed out the smell coming from one of the containers. A phone call was to be made.

We moved back a couple of months to the kitchen of workaholic, abrasive Kate, who lives with her younger partner Ben and his, in her opinion, horrid dog. She was frantically trying to catch up with work missed the previous day, as she’d been at the police station, the dog having discovered the corpse of a young woman lying behind a bush. The dog barking incessantly for attention, she kicked it hard, twice, so hard that blood flowed. The returning Ben was furious. Sparks flew, yet attraction remained, it seemed. A curious relationship. Melissa Pearce and Jez Gooding attacked their roles with gusto, they also made a believable pair, painful to watch.

We then moved forward in time, to Jim’s garage weeks after the opening of the box from which the foul smell had come. A dead woman had been found inside. Jim was a total wreck, busying himself with dismantling all the doors in the house, and quite unable to return to work. His dear wife Elaine did not know how to help him, other than to fetch his pills from the chemist. Rachel popped by, she couldn’t help either. Jim just disintegrated before our eyes. Director Mark Ashdown played Jim, and provided one of the best depictions of distress and collapse that I have ever seen, or think I ever could see. Kirsty Lane was remarkable as Elaine, an ordinary woman confronted with an extraordinary and impossible situation. And worried about her doors. Alex Gold played the impotent and tactful assistant very well.

Great relief was felt at first when we found ourselves back in the hotel with Amy on her morning round. Once more a body in the bed, only this one is alive. This was travelling salesman Charlie, charismatic, attractive, but with wild eyes. He charmed Amy, we began to feel concerned. Even more so when he produced a fine, expensive kitchen knife in a black box, one of his samples, he said. She agreed to meet him for a walk in the park the next morning. Oh dear. Joe Hall made a fine Charlie, the kind of character one wouldn’t want one’s daughter to fall for.

This play is full of tension, one felt continuously uneasy. There was humour there too, which the team brought out nicely. Mark Ashdown’s fine casting and direction, making all the characters rounded and strangely real and believable, ensured that we left the theatre with a certain sense of relief, yet found ourselves reliving all those well-crafted scenes for a good while afterwards. A fine evening’s theatre yet again from Pranksters!