Annie Warren reviews Bryony Lavery’s Frozen
I saw Frozen this week. No, not that one. I was disappointed at first too – but then I found out what the play I was going to see was actually about.
“It’s the story of a 10-year-old girl murdered by a paedophile rapist serial killer,” my friend explained.
“Oh,” I replied, trying to sound like a person faking open-mindedness and polite interest to cover up abject horror, and not like a person so fascinated with serial killers that she spends her spare time googling them and is going to see the live recording of a podcast called My Favourite Murder in May. I’ve found that telling people you’re obsessed with murder is a real conversation-killer.
So, there I was at the Haymarket Theatre on press night, getting star-struck over a glimpse of Lenny Henry in the foyer and wondering if watching this with my boyfriend’s mum was going to be more or less awkward than when I watched Blue Is the Warmest Colour with my stepdad. (Conclusion: less).
The play, written by Bryony Lavery in the late 90s, begins with a series of monologues from Nancy (Suranne Jones), the murdered girl’s mother, Ralph (Jason Watkins), the creepy killer himself and Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), an American-Icelandic criminal psychologist who comes to the UK to use Ralph as a case study after he’s been caught and imprisoned. I was impressed with the big names and after a solid set of exposition-heavy opening monologues between them, I settled in for a good night of hard-hitting misery. Just your average Tuesday evening, really.
Then came another round of monologues. And another. It must have been at least two thirds of the way into the first half before any of the characters interacted with each other, which felt too long – the drama of the monologue had rather worn off by that point, though this didn’t detract from the exceptional performances of each of the actors. At the end of the play, however, I was left wanting more, textually, from Nancy – more character development, more emotion, or even a hint of ageing over the supposed 20 years covered by the play – and less from Agnetha, who has a contrived and overdone subplot of love, friendship, betrayal and madness built in, which Sosanya’s captivating presentation is almost enough to make you forgive (the key word here being ‘almost’). This isn’t to say that I have a problem with those kinds of subplots – on the contrary, I love some good off-stage infidelity – but they’re much more effective when they’re believable rather than unconvincingly twisted into plot devices to push the main storyline forward.
I doubt anyone would disagree that the standout performance of the night was that of Jason Watkins as Ralph – his rising, rasping refrain ‘oh yes, oh YES!’ sending chills down my spine. When he first appears on stage, he has the audience laughing along with him – but the gaiety quickly fades to be replaced by utter revulsion as he reveals himself as a monster. This culminates at the moment when Agnetha asks Ralph if he feels remorse for the seven girls he sexually assaulted and murdered. There is a moment of apprehensive silence as Ralph considers and the audience leans forward in their seats, willing him to show regret. The tension breaks as he replies, “I can’t say I do. The only thing I’m sorry about is that it’s not legal.”
“What’s not legal?” Agnetha replies, just to really drive the point home.
“Killing girls,” he deadpans. The audience ripples as hands fly to mouths to stifle gasps of horror and others wince as if we’ve been slapped in the face.
All narratives pose a question. The issue at the heart of Frozen makes itself clear as the title of Agnetha’s thesis: Is murder a forgivable act? Agnetha’s research has revealed that, due to some kind of childhood trauma, the brains of many serial killers have not developed correctly. As such, they simply cannot relate to others in a normal way. Thus, she argues, though we can condemn their actions as disgusting and deplorable – we cannot say they are evil because the physical abnormalities in their brains preclude them from acting in any other way. In other words, they simply cannot help it.
Many members of the audience would tend to disagree, as they would disagree over whether or not Ralph was redeemed as a character – but the play brings to light many questions around the nature of morality, guilt and retribution that perhaps hadn’t entered our minds until this point. Certainly not with respect to murderers, paedophiles and rapists, in any case.
I do think it could have been improved with a good musical number, though.
Featured image credit: Johan Persson