Frozen review at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – ‘struggles to fill the stage’
Bryony Lavery’s 1998 study of crime, grief and people’s capacity to forgive is a tautly constructed chamber-piece. But it is not treated as such by Jonathan Munby’s production – it’s stretched in all directions, every point hammered home.
Frozen focuses on three characters. Nancy (Suranne Jones) is grappling with grief after her daughter Rhona disappeared on her way to visit her grandmother. Twenty years later and she’s only beginning to come to terms with what happened to her child. Agnetha (Nina Sosanya) is an American psychologist undertaking research into why some people commit horrific crimes – she’s interested in the line that divides the ‘evil brain’ and the ‘ill brain’. Ralph (Jason Watkins) is a killer of young girls who took and killed Rhona. When finally caught and imprisoned, he becomes a subject of Agnetha’s study.
These stories are delivered mostly as monologues to begin with. Each of the characters is isolated by pain, by loss, by damage, and perhaps, the play suggests, by their neurological makeup. Agnetha believes there might be a biological basis for Ralph’s crimes, that the impulse to kill is the result of brain damage sustained in childhood coupled with a background of abuse.
The production benefits from three strong performances, Jones convinces as a grieving mother struggling to hold it together for the sake of her surviving daughter, the unseen Ingrid. Sosanya brings brisk academic efficiency as well as a necessary edge of humour to the character of the psychologist, who it turns out is also processing her own recent loss. Watkins gives perhaps the most impressive performance of all. He’s genuinely repulsive and abhorrent as the killer, spitting the word ‘cunt’ out at regular intervals, yet he remains oddly compelling.
But Munby’s production is not a subtle one. 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.
The production momentarily gains in strength and tension when the characters begin to interact, when Agnetha interviews Ralph in prison, but Munby can’t resist over-salting things. His staging forever shows when it could tell. When a young girl scampers on stage near the end to stare at Ralph accusingly, it’s too much – it feels cheap,
If anything, Munby’s production serves to highlight the cracks and flaws in Lavery’s humane, toothsome, and intriguing play, to reduce it as a piece of writing. I’ve seen chilling productions of this play in studios spaces, but despite the calibre of the actors involved, on this vast West End stage it feels exposed.