It’s a tragedy. London is swamped by hordes of young Disney fans, dressed in pale blue Elsa gowns, clutching precious tickets in their hands, and queueing up outside the Theatre Royal Haymarket to catch the new musical adaptation of everyone’s favourite animation.
But this Frozen isn’t a cutesy story about a princess learning to love. It’s a fresh production of Bryony Lavery’s gruelling 1998 three-hander about a paedophilic serial killer and the distraught mother of one of his young victims.
Oh well, kids, at least this 20th-anniversary revival stars Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones, and W1A’s Jason Watkins and Nina Sosanya, and we like them. At least its directed by Jonathan Munby, who recently got a monumental performance out of Ian McKellen in Chichester Festival Theatre’s London-bound King Lear, and we like him too.
But what did the unsuspecting critics make of this unfortunate turn of events? Was Michael ‘Olaf’ Billington able to wipe the tears from his eyes and engage with Lavery’s knotty philosophical questions? Could Dominic ‘Kristoff’ Cavendish stop humming Let It Go and admire Munby’s direction?
Fergus ‘Prince Hans’ Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Lavery’s play, which uses monologues then conversations to follow the lives and interactions of a child-killer, the bereaved mother of one of his victims, and an American psychologist specialising in horrific crimes, first appeared at Birmingham Rep in 1998, popping up again at the National four years later. It hasn’t had a major London revival since.
For most critics, the play retains its power. “What is striking is that Lavery’s play is both radical in form and progressive in content,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★). “The outstanding virtue of the play is that it shows that vindictive hatred leads nowhere and we need to comprehend, as King Lear says, ‘what cause in nature makes these hard hearts’.”
“It’s an interesting exploration and the nature of the story – proceeding through a series of monologues and duologues – means it is always gripping,” agrees Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★), while Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★) observes “a chilling authenticity in the play’s understanding that evil tends to come not in radical guises, but in banal ones”.
It’s “compelling as a psychological thriller and convincing as a portrait of human malevolence”, according to Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★★), and “mighty moving” according to Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★).
For Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★) it’s a “troubling, compassionate chamber-piece”, for Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) it’s written with “immaculate control”, and for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) it has an “almost televisual restraint” and boasts one moment of “shattering intensity”.
It’s mostly hesitant praise for Lavery’s 20 year-old play, then, except from Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★), who lays into this “episodically structured drama” laden with “touchy-feely language” and “pseudo-science about the motivations and different brains of serial killers”.
“This is, the second play in the space of a week to revolve around the abuse of children, after Girls and Boys at the Royal Court,” observes Shenton. “But it is, alas, not by a country mile either as compulsively addictive as Frozen the Musical or as compellingly gripping as Girls and Boys. Instead, its both painfully predictable and predictably painful to watch.”
There’s a fair amount of TV star-power in Munby’s revival. Suranne Jones played the lead in Mike Bartlett’s wildly popular drama Doctor Foster, Jason Watkins is familiar from his roles in Line of Duty and W1A, and Nina Sosanya from hers in Last Tango in Halifax and also W1A. How do these small-screen stars fare on stage?
Watkins earns the most plaudits. His serial child-killer is “strikingly sinister, a creepy tour de force” according to David Butcher (Radio Times, ★★★), “repugnant and grimly fascinating” according to Hitchings, and “genuinely repulsive and abhorrent” according to Tripney. It is, says Cavendish, “one of the finest performances of his career.”
Jones divides opinion as grieving mother Nancy. For Billington, she “captures excellently the contradictory emotions of Nancy, whose grief is accentuated by a residual guilt and whose lust for revenge gives way to a destructive forgiveness”, and for Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), her performance is “unflinchingly truthful and spontaneous”.
“At various points her emotions are so pent up they come tumbling out in a wild rush,” says Sierz. “When she collapses, her grief is simply harrowing. And you can’t take your eyes off her.”
Elsewhere, though, the reviews are less kind. For Cavendish, Jones is “movingly wintry and drawn” but doesn’t have “much scope to wow”, for Crompton “the performance worked from the outside in rather than the other way around”, and for Butcher, she never “reaches the same pitch” as Watkins.
“In TV dramas from Unforgiven to Doctor Foster, Jones has done soulful suffering better than anyone,” he writes. “On the small screen, her resonant voice and those doom-filled eyes get you every time. Here, she doesn’t find the tragic register, so we understand the suffering of Nancy, the grieving mother, but we never quite feel it.”
Sosanya’s psychologist is largely praised. She brings “brisk academic efficiency as well as a necessary edge of humour” according to Tripney, is full of “poised vulnerability” according to Maxwell, and “works wonders with the almost impossible role” according to Taylor.
There’s some praise for Lavery’s play, then, and plenty for Watkins’ performance. What about Munby’s production? Does he draw out the drama from this dark story?
“Munby’s production is not a subtle one,” writes Tripney. “It’s forever striving to make the play fill the stage. To this end, designer Paul Wills and video designer Luke Halls have deployed a series of moving screens on to which brain scans and images of a child’s face are projected. This gives the whole thing the feel of a disappointing CSI spin-off. The sound design is equally blunt: children’s laughter, ominous noises. This all serves to rob the play of its horror.”
“In fact it is such an intimate piece that the high-tech, smeared, moving screens that form the backdrop of Paul Wills’s set clog up Jonathan Munby’s revival,” agrees Maxwell. “The show would do better to zero in on the spare, inventive staging of the scenes themselves and spend less time surrounding itself with cloyingly tasteful monochrome sadness.”
Most reviews agree, Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★) calling the direction “heavy-handed”, Taylor criticising its “unnecessarily attention-seeking scenic devices” and Crompton simply dismissing it as “all a bit distracting”.
“In truth, Frozen is a piece better suited to an intimate venue,” concludes Hitchings.
It’s not great. The critics mostly think Lavery’s play still packs a punch 20 years after it debuted, but they’re not so keen on Jones’ central performance – and Munby’s over-the-top direction drives them to distraction. Watkins supplies a terrifically creepy turn as a child-killer, everyone agrees, but beyond that the reviews are fairly frosty towards Frozen. Three-star ratings dominate.