We rather rarely get plays nowadays made up of two people interacting on a naturalistic stage, just talking about ‘things’ in real time, all bells and whistles locked away in the closet. Unfashionable it may seem, but Arch 468, Unity Theatre and the Albany’s presentation of Dead and Breathing provides a reasonable argument for the re-emergence of the genre. It’s by no means perfect, but there’s a quiet elegance and style about the play that compliments its dry humour – effortlessly personable.
The narrative follows 68 year old multi-millionairess Carolyn, diagnosed with cancer two years agi and currently living between her bathroom and quilted bed, waiting to die. More importantly, wanting to die. She’s visited by what seems like an omnipresent nurse, Veronika, who bathes her and makes some top-notch omelette while dealing with Carolyn’s never-ending string of complaints and woes. However, the subject matter heats up 15 minutes in, when Veronika is faced with a juicy choice and a fine subject to sustain a couple of hours of drama – if Veronika helps Carolyn end her own life, all of the various millions and the house itself will be left to her name.
Sarah Booth’s design is detailed and very well-thought out, creating an atmosphere of grandeur in decline which seems the perfect accompaniment for Lizan Mitchell’s spoilt and quick-witted Carolyn. Mitchell is wonderful in the role, reprising her performance from the US – she has the audience eating out of her hand within the first few minutes, leading us through the twists and turns of a personality that seems to be able to inspire feelings from admiration to utter disgust (and an entire spectrum in-between). Kim Tatum makes a fine attempt of Veronika, but towards the start of the show it sometimes feels like reactions aren’t given enough time to settle – forging ahead with gusto to get to the plot point and juicy bits but missing some of the intricacies of the script.
My issues with the piece all centre around the surprising ‘twist’ of Veronika’s gender identity. Revealing herself to be transgender, there is a huge amount of potential for a subtle and nuanced look at the generational difference in views between Carolyn and Veronika. However, with the running time of the show fast ticking away, the consequent conversation seems rather hurried and ‘tacked on’ to the end of the piece, without giving it enough time to breathe and develop. With so little time on our stages dedicated to transgender characters, it would have been wonderful to listen to Veronika’s side of the story more, instead of focussing in on Carolyn’s reaction.