Dead and Breathing review – tense question of life or death

Unity theatre, Liverpool
Moral conundrums abound in this ‘breath-holdingly taut’ tale of an dying millionaire who asks her nurse to end her life

Kim Tatum, left, as Veronika and Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn Whitlock in Chisa Hutchinson’s Dead and Breathing.
Photograph: Alex Beckett

Carolyn is a 68-year-old multimillionaire living with terminal cancer who, for the past two years, has been cared for at home by a succession of nurses: Veronika is the 17th. Carolyn wants out of this “lousy, stupid, useless life”. She wants Veronika to help her. Veronika, however, is a committed Christian. This doesn’t look like a problem to Carolyn: “How about you say a little prayer while you hold the pillow over my face, if that’ll make you feel better about it?” Veronika doesn’t take issue with the notion of ending Carolyn’s life. She doesn’t, she explains, feel any attachment to the crotchety invalid; nor does she believe that God will condemn her for ending the life of a person in pain. Her sticking point is that she is likely to be responsible for sending Carolyn straight to hell. Before Veronika will consider killing, Carolyn must repent – truly repent. This is “moral malingering”, in Carolyn’s eyes. She adds a significant financial incentive to the proposition: think of all the good Veronika can do with the money!

Chisa Hutchinson’s sharp-dialogued play breathes new life into an old moral conundrum and throws in a few more twists for added ethical probing (although a tricksy ending feels like a cop-out). Lizan Mitchell gives a tour-de-force performance as Carolyn (a role she created in the US premiere): combative, vicious – touching with no trace of schmaltz. Kim Tatum’s Veronika, less assured overall, has moments of intensity – blazing, when describing prejudice endured. Under Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s finely paced direction, tensions are, at times, breath-holdingly taut.

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