Maybe if you watch a lot of British crime dramas then you’ve wondered to yourself how you would react if you were the person fated to discover a dead body. Or you’ve mused about how the “woman walking her dog” or “bicyclist” is doing now after their discovery aired on the nightly news. For one person, that moment was the end of the story, for everyone else, it’s the beginning.
Amy (Emma Wright) has earned a nickname at work, “The Angel of Death”, because she’s walked in on two different dead bodies while completing her room cleaning service at the run-down hotel she works at. The second one, Jim (cast as Mark Langham but played by Gerard Carroll in this performance), left a note explaining that he also discovered a body while at work, a woman stashed in one of the storage boxes he rented out, and it upset his understanding of life enough to end it. Laura Wade’s script is ostensibly about this uncommon occurrence of someone happening upon death but in the cyclical, overlapping lives of her characters, the story really focuses on the nearly transparent veil between the two worlds; when death intrudes on life, when life leads up to death.
Starting with Amy’s discovery of Jim, the script was structured to stretch both backwards and forwards, warping time to wrap the characters together in a neat web of their own demises. Amy discovers Jim after Jim discovers Kate (Nisrine Amine) after Kate discovers Amy. And from there spooled their lives before and after including Amy’s dreams of living a more interesting life, Jim’s steady progression into middle age with his wife Elaine (cast as Monica Sayers but played by Di Adams in this performance) and underling Ray (Joshua Shediak) by his side, and Kate’s complicated and violent relationship with Ben (Zelman Cressey-Gladwin). None of them ended up where they thought they would and the heavy, permanent weight of their deaths left an eerie, reverberating silence throughout each scene as the audience processed each of the characters’ fates.
Director Jess Davis played with the complexity of the script’s structure as well as the characters’ moral ambiguity by leaning into the unexplained and senselessness of their lives and deaths. Most obviously the dynamic between Kate and Ben was hostile and difficult to watch with the bubbling anger and threat of violence palpable in the air. Flipping the genders of the typical story of domestic abuse and murder in self-defence of course changed the interpretation of justification or the balance of audience sympathy between the couple but something about the abundance of violence in the scene left a foul taste in the mouth with little room for sympathy or understanding. Alternatively, Jim’s seemingly extreme reaction to his discovery and Elaine’s exasperation was a nuanced approach to both the characters’ and audience’s expectations and understanding.
Similarly, Davis balanced the story’s oddity against its grittiness with a mix in the characterisations and the aesthetics of the production. For example, Kate Beere’s production design read as quirky more than realistic with a monochrome green colour palette that rearranged for a hotel room, business reception, and private home. Then, the simple lighting design (Sophie Parker) and sound design (Sam Cheng) did little to add to the setting and instead focused attention on the performances which leant between the more histrionic in Amy and Charlie (Xavier Coy) and the hyper-real in Elaine and Jim. As such, the production fell in between tones of dark drama and black comedy which provided a compelling momentum throughout.
Whatever style the actors were working with, there were some excellent performances. Wright and Shediak were particularly enjoyable to watch as representatives of young people trying to find their feet in the world. Wright garnered audience favour for her idiosyncratic but relatable approach to her curse of finding and caring for those who died by suicide on her clock. But special mention must be made of Carroll and Adams who stepped into the roles at the last minute due to isolation orders for the originally cast actors. Despite having scripts on stage, both Carroll and Adams gave remarkably convincing performances that were tender, nuanced, and funny. Without them, the production would have lacked the big dose of humanity required to stomach so much death.
Most people don’t think about death unless they have to but, even when you have to, what are you supposed to think? Breathing Corpses is a reminder of how deeply entwined death already is with life through the experiences of people who couldn’t escape either.
Breathing Corpses is running at Kings Cross Theatre from April 8th – 23rd
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