Breathing Corpses has no skeletons in the closet (or only good ones)

“When a man has lost all happiness, he’s not alive. Call him a breathing corpse”. If the quote from Sophocles that inspired the title of Laura Wade’s gothic drama doesn’t sound too bright and breezy, its because its not – and neither is her play. Far from the former’s lofty tragedy, though, the latter is grounded in pedestrian reality – three plot-lines intricately link the manager of a self-storage centre, a stressed and sadistic businesswoman, and a rather creepy hotel guest. As the plot tracks backward in time, each scene elucidating the preceding one, each makes a gruesome discovery.

Despite its hammer-horror title, director Lucy Rands explained that “it’s not shocking for the sake of being shocking; it’s more complex than that”. It’s certainly true that the play’s impeccably crafted structure of finely interlocking plots hints at something more profound than the average thriller. But assistant director Nick Fanthorpe (also playing Ben, the barbarous businesswoman’s tortured boyfriend) is quick to remind me that “it’s not immediately about life and death stuff”, but a “series of snapshots of people’s lives”.This was very much apparent in the scene they showed me – Vicky Hingler as the overachieving business-lady rattles off Wade’s crackling dialogue with a combination of obvious relish and detailed naturalism, descending into creative cursing (“fuck-sticks!”) as her laptop crashes. It’s because we can identify with her so easily that her cruel manipulation of her boyfriend as the scene goes on is so powerful. Hingler talked about her uneasy identification with her character, smiling as she told me that “the swearing is great fun”, and that “being allowed to behave that badly, as someone else, is quite cathartic”. It wasn’t all fun and fuck-sticks, though – her bitterly squabbling and then violent altercation with her boyfriend filled the room with a sexually charged, brittle intensity.

As Fanthorpe noted, this is far more complex, subtle and vicious than “just another Coronation Street domestic”. But Rands was keen to stress that its complexity did not preclude its accessibility – she wanted it to be “theatre for everyone, not just for thespian types”. It’s a philosophy that looks to characterise this production – complex structure and ideas, through simple, apparently quotidian dialogue. Breathing Corpses looks set to strike the balance just right.

PHOTO/ Oxford Playhouse

Breathing Corpses is playing at The Burton Taylor from Tuesday to Saturday of 4th week
Tickets £6 (£5 concessions)