Review: Breathing Corpses and Tommy at the Norwich Theatre Royal’s Stage Two

An evening of theatre focused on male suicide and mental health plants an expectation in one’s mind. I was anticipating a production that would pack a punch and affect me strongly, and this double bill did just that. I left the venue feeling exhausted in the best possible way, my emotions high and my thoughts provoked, and because of this I can comfortably say that Amplify have succeeded in achieving their aim to start a conversation and raise awareness around this issue.

The minimalistic set, scattered with grey blocks, was a brilliant idea. A bare set allowed all focus to be placed on the actors with no intricate design to distract viewers away from the subject matter. My thoughts about the set were interrupted, however, by Tommy (Louis Williams), storming onto the stage and immediately pointing a gun at his head. The intensity was through the roof from the very start of ‘Tommy’ because of Williams’ portrayal, and the high standard of acting was maintained from start to finish from all the cast. The transitions in emotion as the play progressed demonstrated Williams’ talent very well, and his ability to make the audience sympathise with the character was second to none.

The other actors, however, were equally as impressive, with each owning their characters and delivering some great performances. Their ability to distinguish different characters with little help from costume or accents is testament to their acting skills, and their work with one another was seamless. References to specific features of attitudes towards mental health with men, such as isolation, a reluctance to talk, and the assumption that there is an ulterior explanation for this behaviour in men, were all important additions to the progression of the story, meaning that suicide was not the only thing highlighted in this production.

There was a great awareness of the splashes of comedy that were intermittent throughout, which were helpful in breaking up the intensity, only to heighten the impact of the darker moments when they returned. The direction from Joe Kirk and Louise Latham was brilliant, with stylistic choices such as having all the actors remain on stage, frozen with vacant facial expressions, for the play’s entirety. This contributed effectively to the sombre nature of the piece. Garbacz’s writing, a spectacle in and of itself, was unpacked amazingly, and the way it was enhanced further helped produce an incredible piece that was a pleasure to watch.

Following on from the harrowing performance just witnessed, ‘Breathing Corpses’ opened with a dead body on stage, an effective transition that established a collective ‘before and after’ narrative. Again, the acting was brilliant. Katie Smith’s portrayal of Amy provided emotional relief from the previous performance, and effectively set up another emotional piece, which backtracked from this moment to investigate the causes of Jim’s (Jacob Bell) suicide. The group of seven actors all gave incredible, distinct performances.

The individual plots that all followed different groups of people, exploring very different dynamics and attitudes towards death, were as eye opening as the next, but the interaction between Kate (Aimée De-Ritis) and Ben (Tom Showell) stood out for me. The depiction of an abusive relationship was very hard-hitting, with my sympathies and support jumping from one character to the next on multiple occasions as the dynamic unfolded. However, my ability to connect with the characters in this play was restricted by the short time spent with them, which, when contrasted with the previous performance of ‘Tommy’, was disadvantageous to its impact.

Despite the uniting theme of male mental health and suicide, the chopping and changing between characters and scenes served to make the play a little disjointed, but this was accentuated more so than it would normally by the fact that we had experienced a continuous and fluid narrative prior to this. As individual pieces not presented as a double bill, these would have worked perfectly, but for me, ‘Tommy’ takes precedence. The double bill format forces the plays to compare and contrast with each other, and this was unfortunately detrimental to ‘Breathing Corpses’.

That being said, the intention to create a thought-provoking and awareness-raising evening of theatre was met and exceeded. The impact was strong and it was highly enjoyable (if that’s the right word to use given the subject at hand.) The acting was brilliant all round in both plays and it was technically great. Amplify have provided an incredibly good first production, and they are definitely a company to watch in coming months.

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About Author

Sam Hewitson

Sam Hewitson

Travel Editor - 2019/20

Editor-In-Chief - 2020/21