Review: Breathing Corpses

Breathing Corpses at York Theatre Royal offers death with a difference. Sonali Dutti reviews

Director: Anna-Siobhan Wilcox
Writer: Laura Wade
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Dates: 6th-16th March
Rating: ★★★★☆

Hotel cleaner Amy (Anna Soden) finds another dead body in a hotel room. Self-storage manager Jim (Paul Osborne) discovers something sinister in a sealed cardboard box. Kate and Ben (Clancy McMullan and Nathan Unthank) stumble across a girl’s corpse whilst walking their dog. Three intertwined deaths with a shifting timescale, Breathing Corpses keeps its audience guessing with intriguing twists. Laura Wade’s one act thriller is performed by amateur group York Settlement Community Players.

Breathing Corpses is set on a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides and the action in the middle. This was ambitious as the actors had to play to three sides, and effectively created closeness with the audience. However it did feel that something was lost in some scenes, especially in scenes where a character’s back was to one side of the audience. Inevitably in static postures the audience that could not clearly see the actor’s faces – for example when Amy breaks down over finding the first body, those behind her missed out on her facial expressions. Additionally the scene changes sometimes seemed over-long. Whilst occasionally during a scene change the focus was at the side of the stage (which was effective), there did seem to be over-long scene changes that seemed clumsy. Overall the lighting and sound were good, yet the barking of a dog did seem tinny and artificial.
That is not to fault the acting, which performed Wade’s writing well. Despite the heavy topics of suicide and murder Soden’s Amy was well played and comedic. In the first part of the play, Jim’s wife Elaine (Helen Wilson) was initially quite funny as a nagging wife. As Breathing Corpses went on, sympathy was felt for Elaine trying desperately to connect with her traumatised husband. There was also a tense scene between Ben and Kate where seemingly normal bickering descends into nasty, frightening violence. Both Ben and Kate display sour characteristics, making it difficult to fully sympathise with either. At the play’s close we meet Charlie (Jamie McKeller), who on the surface seems suave and charming yet has a sinister undertone. All characters were complex and had depth, except one puzzling silent skeleton in a sharp suit with black wings. This skeleton first appeared when the first body is discovered at the play’s start, and again at the play’s close. Perhaps his function was to signify the play’s beginning and end, but I think this spectre of death was underused.

Breathing Corpse’s final twist is unsettling. The last scene parallels the first yet throws the audience and prevents a neat, closed ending to the play. Director Wilcox aimed to “leave you with questions unanswered” and succeeds as the play ends with us trying to work out the timescale and what we’ve seen and who dies. Despite a few issues of execution, the cast worked hard to effectively perform Wade’s script.