Twenty years since Bryony Lavery’s play premiered, society’s unwholesome obsession with serial killers shows no sign of fading. Lavery’s ‘Frozen’ takes this fascination and turns it into something unexpectedly tender, the starting point for a rich exploration of forgiveness.
Not that you’d immediately know it from Jonathan Munby’s cluttered production, which litters the stage with all the naff tropes of the commercial serial killer complex. There are projections of a sad child’s face, a thunking soundtrack familiar from any number of ghoulish telly dramas, and flashes of light that clumsily hint at the intricacies of neuroscience. But through the static, there are flashes of real power.
Suranne Jones delivers a startlingly conflicted, nuanced performance as Nancy, a mother who loses her 10-year-old daughter, Rhona. She relives their petty arguments over mascara,and juggles her grief with a fury that finds an unlikely outlet in Rhona’s older sister (‘bloody Ingrid!’).
Her direct appeals to the audience are broken up with more polished presentations from psychologist Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), who delivers lectures on how serial killers’ brains are shaped by childhood experiences and brain damage, rather than pure evil: a symptom, not a sin, as she puts it. When she’s not breaking down on her doorstep in her own private grief, that is. Serial killer Ralph, Rhona’s murderer, also gets to say his piece. Jason Watkins’s performance is by turns pathetic and repellent, shot through with a horrible sinuous pride in how efficiently he can murder children.
‘Frozen’ really ignites when these three meet each other. Nancy’s conversation with Ralph is nail-biting stuff – though it’s hard to tell if that tension comes from the writing, or from the squirming discomfort of seeing a woman trapped in a prison cell, ready to forgive the unrepentant murderer of her child. These scenes have an uncompromising, slippery emotional energy that draws you in. Still, they strain believability a little – especially in Agnetha’s ability to trust, even hug, Ralph after he whispers a string of obscene threats to her. There’s forgiveness, and there’s borderline sainthood.
‘Frozen’ is a play that treads a very delicate line between exploiting the world’s interest in young dead white girls and channeling it into a greater narrative: one of unfreezing iced-over hearts, of the healing power of time and letting go. Munby’s production tips the balance, slightly, to the side of the ghouls – but still, Lavery’s text loses none of its lingering power.