Illness or evil, what causes people to commit genuinely horrific crimes and, for relatives or friends, is it ever possible to really forgive? Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen taps into our continual fascination with crime, particular with gruesome murder cases, and in writing this story about a grieving mother, criminal psychologist and a paedophilic serial killer, Lavery was the fore-runner for popular culture’s obsession with representing the darkest of human acts. The cosy murder mysteries cling on, but modern crime dramas can be a brutal experience; The Fall, Hard Sun, Luther, even the most recent Agatha Christie adaptations have been quite unforgiving. And it’s the villains that keep us watching.
Lavery’s play shuns physical brutality for a psychological examination of killer and relatives, but this is nonetheless an uncomfortable experience for an audience asked to understand both points of view without entirely, or exclusively, sympathising with either. Yet the play’s very existence also asks interesting questions about the way we view crime as a form of entertainment, seeing our professed shock and outrage at heinous acts as pantomimic reactions that are equal parts disbelief and enjoyment, a throw-back to the days of public execution, the filthier the crime and the more heavy-handed the punishment, the greater the frenzy to know every detail.
In understanding this insalubrious aspect of human behaviour, Lavery makes the audience awkwardly complicit in her story at the very moment they are rustling their sweet-papers and nursing interval drinks. And there is something unnerving, even warped, about the idea of people snacking away while watching an unfolding story of unrepentant, murderous paedophilia and the struggle of two very different women to understand how and why someone would kill a child. So, Frozen, perhaps unintentionally, also makes you wonder what’s wrong with all of us, that we can remain emotionally distant yet glued to cases like these, morally repulsed yet still able to finish our bag of Sherbet Lemons.
10-year-old Rhona is abducted on her way to her grandmother’s house, taken by creepy killer Ralph as a relief from the pain of his latest weird tattoo. As several other bodies are discovered Ralph is sent to prison where years later he meets academic psychiatrist Agnetha who holds regularly sessions with Ralph to contribute to her research, arguing that criminal behaviour stems from their own childhood mistreatment. Running alongside this, Rhona’s mother Nancy spends years hoping her daughter will return, and when she finally learns the truth she feels an emptiness that leads to activism.
Based on the title, it’s safe to say that anyone expecting Frozen to be about ice princesses and comedy snowmen would be in for a rude awakening. Jonathan Mumby’s production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket manages to fight the size of the auditorium to offer an intimate and revealing portrait of three strangers forever connected by one crime. Mumby has taken Lavery’s not entirely satisfactory drama and, worked with the designer to create an innovatively-staged and free-flowing show that seamlessly overlays a series of fairly short scenes, as character perspectives start to overlap.
Using video images of water-shapes, a crackling image of Rhona and depictions of the brain’s internal wiring, these are projected in quick succession onto frosted plastic flies that come together to create a series of rooms and locations in moments, taking the audience from Rhona’s childhood bedroom, preserved for decades by her grieving mother, to Ralph’s simple jail cell and to the King’s College London lecture hall where Agnetha delivers a presentation on her findings.
This latter section is particularly well-staged as Mumby utilises the full-width of the stage so Agnetha can walk from the lectern directly into the room where she’s “treating” Ralph, peppering the key points of her lecture with dramatized examples of their conversations. The staging offers a sense of all characters being hemmed-in to an extent by the circumstances of the crime, while reinforcing Lavery’s multi-meaning interpretation of being frozen which is applied to each of the character’s slightly differently.
And while it is a play where emotions rise and fall over more than twenty years, this interpretation purposefully limits the histrionics, taking a more forensic approach to unveiling each of the characters motivation and arc during this time. It utilises a narrative structure in which each character directly addresses the audience, unveiling their point of view in a succession of quick scenes. Yet, as affecting drama, it is only partially successful, and while it has moments of intensity, the central section isn’t able to fully overcome the slightly undernourished aspects of Lavery’s characterisation and the rapidly passing years between scenes seem to take Nancy in particular to a surprisingly matter-of-fact acceptance of her daughter’s murder without giving the audience or the actor the chance to fully explore the immediate impact of the abduction, meaning what follows for that character is a little diluted.
The trouble is, everyone loves a villain and it is Ralph who feels the most tangible of the characters, given an unsavoury reality in Jason Watkins superb performance that dominates the production. Right from the start, Ralph’s true nature is offered up, unabashed and almost proud of his sickening tastes that will make you squirm in your seat. After an early fruitless search of his rented flat, Watkins is shudder-inducing as he reveals the contents of his treasured suitcase to the audience which he has recovered from his garage.
What is so important about Watkin’s performance, is the eerie normality he brings to the role, making Ralph all too imaginable. There are slight physical tics like a gentle limp on one leg but subtly done to suggest his own complex backstory, and the intensity of the performance, the fascination with his sense of order, offers meat to Agnetha’s argument about his psychological damage. Watkins presents a character who is largely without remorse, wishing his tastes were tolerated, a fairly bland man just slightly off-centre which makes him genuinely chilling.
The production’s big draw is a rare stage appearance for Suranne Jones as mother Nancy who is the emotional heart of the story. As we follow the aftermath of the tragedy, Jones takes us from continued hope that Rhona is still alive – a state that last for some years – to her growing activism, speaking at events that support women enduring similar ordeals. All of this is managed very credibly, while utilising the approachable warmth that Jones brings to her celebrated screen performances.
The emotional heft is there too, particularly in a tender moment with her daughter’s remains, and alongside her domestic activities, Jones’s Nancy tries to hold together the rest of her family, including a crucial relationship with her other unseen daughter, and the audience is given a clear sense of the texture of Nancy’s domestic life and the wider effect of the crime. The speed of the passing years between scenes means that the immediate aftermath of the abduction is suddenly 5 or even 20 years later so Jones presents a woman trying to get on with things but set on a permanently different course than the one she intended.
Lavery’s deliberately scientific characterisation and fascination with her villain does keep you a little more distant than her grieving mother and damaged psychologist deserve, and while Nina Sosanya does a fine job as American-Scandinavian criminologist Agnetha, the character isn’t fully developed on the page. Given her own backstory of sudden panic attacks and an emotional entanglement that affects her work, Agnetha’s is little more than Lavery’s academic mouthpiece, a chance to display the detailed research into the criminal brain.
Sosanya is a fine actress nonetheless and keeps you engaged, particularly in the direct confrontations with Ralph, as she attempts to lure him out. Its set-up replicates but lacks the danger of the Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter conversations in The Silence of the Lambs, but Sosanya clearly charts the developing human affection Agnetha develops, and, having treated him as little more than a specimen in the beginning, she starts to appreciate the contribution to her work, as well as pity for the damage inflicted on him in childhood.
Frozen is a complex play that asks the viewer to detest the actions of the paedophilic murderer while equally attempting to understand them. There is a conversation about illness versus evil that runs through the show, and, while it makes a case for the former it isn’t supported by any suggestion of what society should do about this other than forgive the perpetrators. The individual narrative structure doesn’t surprise you, and clearly builds to character cross-overs with Nancy, Agnetha and Ralph rather inevitably appearing in each other’s stories.
There are comparisons to be made with Jennifer Haley’s The Nether which opened at the Royal Court in 2014 before transferring to the Duke of York’s the next year. Dealing with a similar topic but updated to online predators, The Nether was a challenging watch that made you feel sullied as you left the theatre. Frozen doesn’t quite have the same overwhelming effect, and while it effectively grapples with dark themes, its more clinical approach wants the audience to think about the cause of these behaviours and the possibility of forgiveness. Well performed and interestingly staged, Frozen’s most important effect is in reflecting society’s unhealthy obsession with serious crime, making us complicit in its presentation as entertainment.
Frozen is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 24 April with tickets from £10 for restricted view seats. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1