Gerald Moon’s 1983 comic crime caper is set in the year of Edward VIII’s abdication. So its revival, in the light of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepping back as senior working royals, has a certain contemporary resonance.
The abdication of 1936 hangs over the play (we hear Edward’s radio broadcast and “crowds around the palace”), though the crowning of his brother, George VI, is not mentioned. Tension between brothers is central to the story here: Evelyn and Rupert Farrant are at war with each other.
Tom York, best known as one of the Carne brothers in Poldark, plays both Evelyn, a camp, down-at-heel thespian, and Rupert, the richer, more respectable of the pair. One lives in dingy Soho and is forced to flirt with the landlady to stave off paying the rent; the other has inherited the family fortune and lives a gentleman’s life.
We meet Evelyn in the opening scene, persuading an ex-army major to murder Rupert. What follows is a kind of revolving-door farce with twins, dead bodies and a gun. York plays the brothers with gusto and there are some nifty manoeuvres that suggest both brothers are present on stage, even if we can see and hear the effort of the production team behind various curtains.
But this cannot take away from the tepid humour as Corpse! seems to retreat into a nostalgic world of bygone Englishness. Evelyn goes to Fortnum & Mason for lunch; Rupert wears a smoking jacket and dines at his club. The production, directed by Clive Brill, seems like a melange of influences thrown together, from Hitchcock to Ealing comedy to Carry On.
Stereotypes abound, from the none-too-bright Irish conman posing as an army man (Paul Kemp) to the lonely, lascivious landlady (Felicity Duncan). There are mannered references to performance and other in-jokes, engineered to appeal to a theatrical clique (“acting is a calling for people who don’t want to work,” says one actor).
York is good at playing both the cad Evelyn and the upright-if-priggish Rupert. Beth Colley’s revolving set, showing the brothers’ respective households, is also appealing. But these features are not enough to save Corpse! as it limps to its deathly end.