THEATRE Theatre Reviews Breathing Corpses Royal Court London UK REVIEWS

Breathing Corpses

Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
Royal Court Theatre

Spine tingling

The title of this excellent piece of new writing from up-and-coming playwright Laura Wade comes from a Sophocles quote, "When a man has lost all happiness, he's not alive. Call him a breathing corpse.". The play, directed by Anna Mackmin, consists of five scenes, each with different groups of apparently unconnected people. They are all unhappy or at least unfulfilled, and each character's life is turned around by the discovery of a dead body.

Paul Wills's excellent set design is versatile enough to create different environments out of a simple rectangular space. The set consists of eight doors, evenly placed along the back and side walls. In each scene different doors are used and others ignored, creating the impression that each scene occurs in a new location. Beds, desks and counters smoothly slide in and out from the walls when required, changing the look of the space. At the start, Mark Jonathan's lighting design has an eerie greenish glow emanating from behind each door, the light fading up and down in time with the sound of hoarse breathing.

The atmosphere is rather creepy, and there are some moments that are terrifying enough to make the audience jump out of their seats. The play's tone is by no means unrelentingly scary however. The opening scene is ably handled by Laura Elphinstone, reminiscent of a young Janine Duvitski, playing Amy, a hotel maid. She enters to clean a room, only to find the occupant dead in the bed. Rather than tell the authorities immediately, she instead strikes up a conversation with the poor dead man. The ensuing scene is both touching and funny.

The rest of the cast also excel in their roles. This is especially pleasing since many of the actors are familiar faces from TV, and one often wonders whether TV actors can cut it in a live genre like theatre. James McAvoy and Tamzin Outhwaite convince as a couple antagonising each other in a small flat on one of the hottest days of the year. The following scenes of domestic violence between them are genuinely uncomfortable to watch.

The play is short and pacy and Ian Dickinson's sound design keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. The play opens with a piercing scream, played so loudly through the speakers that some audience members screamed along with it. The transitions between scenes are punctuated by more loud sound effects which unnerve the audience and prevent them from drifting off and not paying attention. That is not to say that the sound effects are gratuitous, each one is cleverly placed within the context of the scene. The opening scream ties in with the chambermaid's shock at finding a corpse. The next scene opens with the amplified noise of a crate being opened, in keeping with its storage facility setting, where a funny smell is coming from one of the storage units.

Towards the end it becomes clear that the characters in each scene are not so unconnected. This is never made explicit however, making the play far scarier; what an audience can imagine will always be more frightening than something that is spelled out. This is an excellent chiller that I would thoroughly recommend anyone to go and see. © RW

“Breathing Corpses” is at Royal Court Theatre from the 24th of February until the 26th of March, 2005.

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