Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Jeni Draper
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Bryony Lavery’s play, Frozen, originally premiered at Birmingham REP in 1998 and won the Theatrical Management Association’s Best New Play award. It follows three characters whose emotions are frozen in different ways and sees them progress and come to terms with their pasts.
At the outset, we see each character deliver monologues which set the scene and their contexts. Nancy is frozen in wretched hope following the abduction of her ten year old daughter, Rhona. In her heart, she really believes she knows Rhona is alive. Ralph is a methodical, cold blooded serial killer with a preference for young girls. He values chilling efficiency and order in all he does. He is local to Nancy, and it was he that took, abused and murdered Rhona. But his only regret is that that should be illegal. Agnetha is a New York psychologist who, with her research partner, David, is researching serial killers. Her thesis is that some, at least, have suffered damage to their developing brains so their actions are “not sins but symptoms”. She is visiting England for research purposes and studies Ralph. She is also mourning the death of David in a very recent and senseless road accident. These three characters begin to interact and gradually their interactions lead each to make decisions and changes to their lives as their emotions finally thaw.
This version is produced in collaboration with fingersmiths, who have a mission to push the boundaries of how BSL and spoken or written English are presented on stage. So this production adds a further dimension to the original: each character is played by two actors, one who speaks, one who signs. But this goes much further, dramatically speaking, than simple BSL interpretation. An inspired directorial decision is that the two actors are not simply clones of each other: for each character they are equal but different and complementary, each providing something the other does not and therefore deepening our understanding of their motivations and actions. So the two actors for each character allow different aspects of that character’s personality and emotions to come to the fore: Jean St Clair as the signing Nancy is very physical, showing the internal turmoil only hinted at by Hazel Maycock, as the speaking Nancy, with her initially coolly controlled words. Maycock is especially affecting as the woman barely holding her emotions in check, for example, as she learns that her daughter has been found under the cold earth floor of Ralph’s lock-up. She’s totally believable as a woman struggling with herself and constantly living on the edge. And occasionally, the two actors playing a single character will interact with each other, for example, when Ralph is suddenly overcome by emotion: the two actors, Mike Hugo and Neil Fox-Roberts, practically come to blows as he tries to cope with the unfamiliar rush of adrenalin and … remorse? In a further layer, the speaking Agnetha, Sophie Stone, is herself deaf. The distinctive rhythm to her speech does mean it takes a little longer for hearing audience members to adjust. Her signing partner, Deepa Shastri, in her first theatre rôle, makes a decent fist of that part, but it remains the characters of Ralph and Nancy on whom I found myself concentrating.
This is not an easy play to watch: the subject matter is difficult to deal with and Ralph’s coldly logical and matter-of-fact description of his abduction technique and subsequent actions has ice running down the spine. This is not for the faint-hearted – the language is robust to say the least and the themes would not be suitable for children. Nancy’s aching sense of loss feels very real and will stay with you long after leaving the auditorium. The script nevertheless feels right and is all the more affecting in consequence. Lavery acknowledges that her characters are rooted in real people, so, for example, some of Nancy’s words come from Marian Partington, the sister of one of Fred and Rosemary West’s victims. And it is this very authenticity that contributes to the play’s chilling impact. The monochromatic, minimalistic, multi layered set from Jo Paul enables the cast to have freedom of movement while also helping to set the mood, especially as the characters start their journeys.
Frozen is an important piece, presented in an accessible and effective manner and well worth making the effort to see.
Photo: Alison Baskerville | Runs until 15th February 2014 then on tour