Arts Reviews Muse

Theatre Review: Breathing Corpses

Corpses come to life in Drama Soc's daring and disturbing production, leaving Rachel Sanders enthralled

Credit: Greg Tiani

Laura Wade’s contemporary short showdown follows the chain of three separate groups who are all interlinked by the repeated but identical incident: the horrifying discovery of a dead body. Corpses certainly seemed alive throughout the scenes ranging from frustration to comic relief and back to anger. McGreevy and Rimini’s production certainly brought, as much as they can, the characters ‘alive’.

It opens on Amy (Jessy Roberts), a young hotel cleaner, who has the unusual find of a second dead body in a guest’s room. She comically and almost endearingly interacts with the body and we learn the guest’s former name: Jim (Caidraic Hefferman). Jim is then shown (alive) in his office with employee Ray (Mark Ellis), who provides some much needed comic relief, alongside Jim’s wife, Elaine (Keira MacAlister). They end up discussing the odd smell coming from one of Jim’s containers. The scene completely shifts again to show Kate and Ben (Abby Coppard and Jacob Seldon), a dysfunctional couple with violent tendencies and little love left. We gradually learn that each story is connected to the previous, going backwards in time, as the effect of discovering a dead body takes its toll on each individual. The play finishes with the suggestive sight of Charlie (Robert King), a new hotel guest in an eerily déjà vu setting, seducing a naïve Amy into yet another death scene. 

Strong themes require strong actors, and the Drama Barn did not disappoint. Roberts' innocent yet quirky portrayal left little to be desired and contrasted well against King’s older, more sadistic character. Hefferman and MacAlister began with a comic husband-wife duo followed by more tender and painful scenes, clearly depicting the distance that has grown between the couple. Ellis’ physical acting was excellent, jerking and jumping into Ray’s fluxing states of nerves and childlike excitement. But I found Coppard and Seldon the most brutal in their constant abuse and abhorrence of each other. I physically cringed when Seldon forced Coppard onto the floor, lashing out against her constant anger at everything, even Cameron the pitiful, sad dog round the corner. 

Thomson and Nicholson’s minimalist set was surprisingly effective, with almost black-and-white washed walls and all set pieces constantly onstage, perhaps to fill out the space. The scene changes were constructed by a mini-dance routine followed by actors moving pieces around the set. It definitely worked, as a complete blackout is almost impossible in the Barn, but the music felt off for me as a pop techno-electric background that didn’t quite match the mood. Perhaps it was more of the comic relief?

The costume, on the other hand, was brilliantly done by Emslie and Grimley. Amy’s pink clothes and frilly socks spoke of her innocence whilst Charlie’s first appearance – one step away from stark naked in plain black boxers – certainly gave the startling effect needed. I especially enjoyed Ray’s worker’s boiler suit, although I’m not entirely convinced that he would wear the smart brown lace-ups that Ellis was sporting. Jim and Elaine had the sensible, middle-aged clothes that made me feel like I was around my parents’ friends. Ben and Kate’s overly casual look reflected the state of their relationship; tired, worn out and old. Hats off to the make-up artist for Seldon’s larger than life bruises: raw, red patches that startled and shocked. Altogether I felt tired and emotional after experiencing their close up, angrily intimate exchanges with each other.

Lighting was mostly effective, usually subtle and unnoticeable. Several times it flickered and wavered – presumably intentionally – which made me feel odd and uncomfortable, particularly in scenes between Jim and Elaine, only ceasing when Ray spoke up. I felt Ray was often a much needed humour for the darker themes centralising the action.

I’m not sure enjoyable is the correct word for a drama so focused on death. But certainly enthralling and entertaining in its turns with plenty of powerful acting and doses of laughter. Certainly an interesting insight into the psychological effects of death and stunningly portrayed so that it draws you into the action; just watch you don’t end up as a breathing corpse yourself after witnessing what happens to those who found them…

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