Breathing Corpses, Royal Court, London

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The Independent Culture

To happen on one corpse might be considered a misfortune. To chance upon a second begins to look career-endangering - particularly if your line of business is being a hotel chambermaid.

To happen on one corpse might be considered a misfortune. To chance upon a second begins to look career-endangering - particularly if your line of business is being a hotel chambermaid. Not good for public relations to employ a cleaner with a seeming genius for finding customers who are certainly about to leave through express check-out. That, though, is the fate of Amy, the 19-year-old Northern girl played by Laura Elphinstone, whose slightly farcical second run-in with a suicidal stiff forms the first scene of Breathing Corpses, a highly intriguing new play by Laura Wade. It's now premiered with a crack cast in Anna Mackmin's funny and expertly unnerving production at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs.

The sick, sad twist is that Jim, the dead middle-aged man whom Amy happens upon, has, it emerges, taken his own life because of the terrible psychological fall-out of having discovered the corpse of a murdered young woman, which had been left in a unit at the self-storage centre that he ran. And what caused the row leading to that homicide - could it have anything to do with the chance finding of yet another cadaver? And could this last stiff be someone whom we have already met, and whose story will return to bookend the proceedings as the play leaves this innocent on the brink of being taken out for a treat that will conclude in her butchering?

The piece that Breathing Corpses most reminds me of is Schnitzler's La Ronde: there's the same sense of knock-on effect and of very different types of people becoming tied together in a kind of chain. Except that here the link is death rather than sex, and Wade has chosen to heighten the weird impression of determinism by the paradoxical method of telling the story out of chronological sequence.

The title derives from some lines of Sophocles that are used as the epigraph: "When a man has lost happiness, he's not alive/ Call him a breathing corpse.'' Encountering death in life and feeling dead while still alive are the subjects of this play, and it dramatises responses that range from the termagant selfishness of Tamzin Outhwaite's businesswoman, for whom the discovery of a slaughtered girl principally means two days exiled from her computer, to the existential despair of Jim (a terrific, darkness-plumbing performance by Paul Copley), who can't get the smell of the corpse out of his nostrils or free his mind from the awful memory of having felt like God at the moment of finding it.

The acting - from old hands such as the excellent Niamh Cusack to exciting younger talent such as James McAvoy and Rupert Evans - is spot-on, and the alarming production had me, at moments, virtually jumping into the lap of my neighbour.

To 19 March (020-7565 5000)

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