Featuring comedy, mystery and mistaken identity, Corpse! at Vienna’s English Theatre draws on tried and tested tricks for an entertaining show

The madcap mystery thriller has long been a bastion of English theater, with plays like Sleuth, The Real Inspector Hound or Deathtrap delighting audiences for decades. Likewise, the classic plot device of the twin or body double has deceived from Shakespeare to Robert Louis Stevenson. Its these ingredients that prove key to the success of Corpse!, a deliciously dark comedy starring Chris Polick now playing at Vienna’s English Theatre.

Similar to Sleuth, which was performed there in 2017 with Polick in the lead as well, this is a serpentine thriller with surprising twists. Corpse! is much more light-hearted though: With the humor heightened to the point of Victorian melodrama, the play glistens with old-world frivolity, even in its darker moments. It’s essentially a player’s play, with manifold thespian in-jokes and tongue-in-cheek jibes; “I hate art, artists, actors… always trying to catch a free meal!” exclaims the Major, turning almost to the audience.

The energetic, winding plot has a simple premise: Britain, 10th December, 1936: The day King Edward VIII is to announce his abdication. The nation is glued to their radios, making it the perfect time to conclude some underhanded business.

And that’s exactly what out-of-work actor and master of disguise Evelyn Farrant is up to, seeking to murder his wealthy twin brother Rupert and secretly take his place. Entering in the glad rags of a upper-class middle-aged woman, the play opens as he returns from Fortnum & Mason to his basement bedsit in Soho, only to find his widowed Landlady waiting for his overdue rent. After appeasing her with flirtation, Evelyn retrieves some pilfered food from his clothes and awaits the retired Major Powell, hoping to convince him to join his macabre plot – though why Evelyn chose the crooked tippler Powell, and whether this overly intricate scheme could ever succeed, remains to be seen.

The situation soon develops a life of its own, and, as the action hurtles ever closer towards its crescendo, the ascending frenzy keeps the audience guessing right up until the end, where a pleasingly surprising conclusion awaits.

Old stagers

Director Ken Alexander and stage designer Terry Parsons have a wealth of experience between them, making for a slick production. A 50-year veteran in the business, Parsons’ comprehensive set has a split stage; on one side is Evelyn’s squalid bedsit, replete with a dressing mannequin, Drury Lane posters billing W.C Fields and Houdini, and Yorick’s skull as clutched by Hamlet. This is drawn swiftly back between scenes to reveal the lavish living room of Rupert’s Green Park house, with its mechanized secret minibar.

Described as opposing characters, the twins are not quite so pronounced in this production, but Polick entertains as both; providing the lion’s share of the play’s thunderous energy, he’s a near constant presence on stage. The start is plot-heavy and occasionally distracting with Polick’s Evelyn ever-busy tinkering, but the pieces soon click into place, ensnaring the audience in its wild unpredictability.

Corpse! at Vienna's English Theatre

The highlights are in the surrounding performances: the excellent synchronous arcs, or rather plummets, of the Major and Evelyn’s Landlady. It’s the masterful choreography of these two side characters, their increasing inebriety and insistence on unintentionally foiling Evelyn’s plot, that offer the biggest laughs of the night – the bumbling, bibulous Major played by Moray Treadwell becomes increasingly unhinged throughout, while Margaret Preece as the amorous widowed Landlady drew an impromptu round of applause for her sherry-fuelled, wailing rendition of an old love song whilst stumbling offstage.

In a play full of double-crossing and cross-dressing, all instigated by a murderous, disgruntled actor, it’s unabashed love of the theater that stands out most. As the distressed Major declares in another tongue-in-cheek line: “Pretending to be someone else. Is that any way to live?”

Daily except Sun through Apr 27 (no shows over Easter), Vienna’s English Theatre. 8., Josefsgasse 12. englishtheatre.at