The Green Room: What makes you corpse on stage?

Dead Funny at London’s Vaudeville Theatre in 2016: Katherine Parkinson (left) was required to keep a consistently straight face while the rest of the cast went full tilt for laughs. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

John Pepper is 31, and for the past 10 years has worked extensively as an actor in various regional theatres, the National Theatre and in radio, television and feature film

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, RSC, in the West End and on the road

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays and toured both national and internationally

Jenny Talbot, 39, has nearly 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays


John Absolutely anything makes me corpse. It’s a nightmare.

Beryl Other people corpsing.

Albert Working with Beryl, then, probably.

Gary Ugly kids. Or ugly adults, come to that.

Albert When I did Murder in the Cathedral, a fart virtually stopped the second act.

John People forgetting lines, stumbling, or a noise in the audience.

Gary Being in something awful for too long.

Albert That doesn’t make me corpse – that makes me weep.

Jenny People falling over. Always.

Albert I think corpsing is part of the whole sense of danger of doing something live. It’s vital. It’s brilliant to look in another actor’s eyes and see a shared twinkle.

Beryl It’s bad when you get a repeater, though, corpsing night after night in the same place. I’m a professional, honest.

John In panto, corpsing can be part of the show, which audiences love. I have seen it contrived, though, and that was just a little sad.

Albert I hate contrived corpsing in panto.

Jon I like how unexpected it can be: I was in a show where the one completely uncorpsable actor was eventually brought down by a Coke can being knocked over.

John Quite often it’s a moment in a scene that has been brought up backstage. It’s not funny in and of itself, but if the people involved know it’s coming up it can be utter chaos.

Albert As a young actor, I was a very bad corpser and got taught a lesson at Stratford by an older actor who regularly made me corpse, and then bawled at me in the green room for laughing. Not nice, but it worked.

John That’s not terribly fair. Was he corpsing you on purpose?

Jon Noel Coward supposedly ruthlessly corpsed the young Olivier night after night in Private Lives until he was immune to it. Whether or not it’s true, it certainly sounds like it could work.

Jenny I worked with a guy who corpsed the whole company pretty much every show, but when it came to us trying to corpse him, he never went. Very mean, I thought.

Jon They’re the worst. Try a Coke can if you work with him again.

Beryl I don’t like people trying to make you go, but I do like a shared twinkle. Company corpses are great.

Jon I did a show with one very dangerous scene: war play, night before the battle, loads of actors butching it up and eyeballing each other. One night, seven of the 14 actors were in so much trouble they had to leave the stage.

John I worked with an older actor who night after night corpsed me in the same place. Once I’d become immune to what he was doing, he would change it up to set me off.

Beryl Did you dread the moment coming?

John Absolutely, although I also secretly loved it. Corpsing can also be hilarious fun.

Jenny I’ve literally done that thing of counting in my head to stop me laughing at someone, and digging my nails into my hand.

John It can ruin a show too. I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet where the usual very sombre ending was destroyed by most of the company howling with laughter and trying to mask it as sobs. Absolute carnage.

Albert I think I was in that – or perhaps the improbable tragic coincidences of Romeo and Juliet lend themselves to laughter.

Beryl Corpsing corpses!

Jon That’s where the term supposedly comes from – because it’s so noticeable when a dead body is laughing. Any other tips for avoiding it?

John Deep breathing – although even that’s difficult when playing dead.

Jenny Someone once cried so much over my dead body that their snot landed on my face.

Beryl Did you die on your back?

Jenny Yes – in someone’s arms.

Beryl We have to let directors know this will happen. New rule: never die on your back.

Jon That’s one of the danger zones: being dead, along with being a long way upstage, being behind a gauze or any kind of pre-show.

Beryl Pre-show – that will do it.

Jon Another rule for directors: if you send us on at the half, we will mess around.

Jenny  Twenty years in the business and I have yet to do a pre-show.

Jon Careful, Jenny: I hadn’t done one until last year, then I had two in a row. One of them even involved a costume change before beginners.

John No one likes a pre-show. But being on stage during an interval is even worse. When am I supposed to have a coffee and a cig?

Jon Corpsing can be fun, but there’s nothing worse than being unable to stop yourself.

Beryl I’m aching just thinking about it.

Jon The golden rule is that the audience should never clock it. If they think we’re having more fun than them, it’s game over.