Review: Breathing Corpses

Tom Bevan 20 January 2016

Spending ninety minutes watching death, murder and suicide stories unfold and eventually intertwine isn’t usually how I’d spend a Tuesday evening. Yet despite a few lulls in pacing, the consistently strong cast of Breathing Corpses keeps even the most uncertain murder mystery fan hooked.

The trigger warnings written on the Playroom door were certainly needed; the opening scene reveals a nothing-town hotel cleaner, Amy, played sincerely by Isla Cowan, finding yet another corpse in one of the rooms. Surprisingly unscathed, she delivers a heartfelt monologue about her dead-end life and talks openly to the corpse for far longer than is comfortable to watch. The dead man, Jim, has left a suicide note linking his death to his own traumatic discovery of a dismembered body. And so the play gets into gear.

The unveiling of the puzzling story is as much about the two sets of couples implicated in the deaths as it is about the deaths themselves. Marcus Martin and Laura Pujos are the jilted Jim and Elaine, whose excruciatingly typical, jaded middle-aged marriage takes a devastating turn one day at his storage business. Jim’s manic meltdown is deftly executed and his nervous employee Ray becomes more than just a narrative accessory; Rhodri Hughes brings depth to a small but fascinating role.

Elsewhere, Kate, chillingly played by a stand-out Helen Vella Taylor, is the manipulative and violent partner of Josh McClure’s dog-loving Ben. A tense fight scene has enough twists and turns for a whole other plotline; watching the nuanced power dynamics drastically go back and forth between the victim of abuse and the gendered holder of authority. At times rushing through dialogue, the small cast is otherwise always impressive and convincing. 

As the title suggests, one of the play’s principal themes is the living consequences of homicide and director Hazel Lawrence deals with violent and graphic scenes with great maturity, sensitivity and not an ounce of the melodrama that could have sneaked in. The confusing final scene, it seems, is an alternate version of the initial hotel monologue in which Seth Kruger’s psychopath interacts with Amy. Dumbstruck, this time, to find a man alive in his room, the unnerving closing dialogue leaves us with so many unanswered questions.

Dark, intense and consistently well-acted, Breathing Corpses may not contain a gripping singular narrative line, but kept me gasping for breath right until its enigmatic close.