In a series of tensely calibrated, overlapping vignettes around death, despair and domestic violence, Laura Wade’s Breathing Corpses makes for relentlessly grim viewing. But as played out in Anna Mackmin’s nerve-jangling and intense production, it is also gruesomely gripping.
Wade - who seems to have suddenly emerged onto the London scene this year with two original plays in the space of the same month after previous regional theatre work and the literary adaptation Young Emma at the Finborough - appears to be marking a territory around the subject of death.
Her other new play, Colder Than Here (premiered at Soho Theatre at the beginning of February), movingly observed the preparations that a dying cancer patient makes with her family for her own passing. But whereas that haunting play was domestic in its insularity and detail, Breathing Corpses encompasses a sense of a much wider world, where one death reverberates to cause another.
Wade’s play doesn’t follow a linear narrative or time frame, but jumps about inviting you to make connections between its different scenes. It’s like a theatrical jigsaw puzzle, beginning with the discovery of a suicide in a hotel room by a chambermaid, and looping backwards to the uncovering of another secret rotting in a self-storage unit.
To call it morbidly dark is probably an understatement. But Mackmin’s production brings this stark story of death to vivid life in a set of uniformly terrific performances. A fraught domestic encounter between a woman who physically abuses both her partner and his dog is acted with ferocious intensity by Tamzin Outhwaite and James McAvoy. There’s a more touching, but no less despairing, portrait of another marriage put under strain from Paul Copley and Niamh Cusack. And Laura Elphinstone is superb as an “angel of death” chambermaid whose misfortune is to chance upon the bodies of guests who have committed suicide in their rooms.
But it’s also Ian Dickinson’s extraordinarily ominous soundscape that keeps you on edge throughout, with even everyday sounds like those of falling rain, barking dogs and car alarms acquiring a sinister edge. When a police siren intruded from the street outside the theatre, as it often does in Sloane Square, for once it could have been part of the action.
- Mark Shenton