Contemporary playwright Laura Wade stands accused of a facility for language – something any company aiming to put on a performance of one of her plays should monopolise. Without understanding the need to play on the nuances of dialogue that permeate her writing – without pivotal pauses, stutters, and crescendos – any performance would fall flat on its face, unable to do justice to the script.
Fortunately for audiences in Oxford this week, there is no threat of this happening; the Trinity Players’ production of Wade’s Breathing Corpses holds its own, and then some. A cast of seven and their director have ably animated the Burton-Taylor’s lifeless studio, bringing some of the most charismatic, chilling and fierce student performances this city can expect to see this year. It gets off to a particularly impressive start with Priya Manwaring’s turn as Amy, the unlucky cleaner beset with uncovering corpses on the job; keeping the audience’s attention locked on a single actor’s monologue for an entire scene is no mean feat, and Manwaring’s deft control of timing lends the opening the necessary authenticity to accommodate the minimalistic set.
Coupling a strange, anti-clockwise plot with dynamic character pairings, this play makes for some electrifying interactions between performers onstage. Without giving too much of the story away, praise has to be heaped upon Vicky Hingley and Nick Fanthorpe, whose tempestuous portrayal of a couple at one another’s throats – quite literally – oscillates between control and feral passion in a way that sixty years ago might have landed them a censorship. The contrast with the relationship portrayed by George Ferguson and Olivia Curdy, whose affectionate but poignant marital misunderstandings end in tragedy, is strikingly managed under the direction of Lucy Rands; and praise enough cannot be given for Andy Butler’s performance as Ray, devoted friend to Ferguson’s suffering depressive. As a whole cast, there is a unity of purpose and ability to range across emotions that precisely captures the hopelessness and humour underlying Wade’s dialogue. The star turn is perhaps given by Jack Flowers, whose spine-tingling performance as potential serial killer Charlie is so perfectly executed, it would plausibly garner a Tony nod in professional circles. The whole performance is a masterclass in modern black comedy, and the management of Hitchcock-esque suspense (plus a few key moments of opportunistic shirtlessness) makes Breathing Corpses a stellar show.