Frozen @ Riverside Studios, London

cast list
Dorothy Lawrence
Rosalind Cressy
Jack James

directed by
Sonia Fraser
One of the most striking things about Bryony Lavery’s play of murder and damaged minds is the humour. Though Frozen ventures into some very dark places, there is still room for laughter; it captures perfectly the human need for release and connection in the bleakest of situations.

This is the first UK revival of Lavery’s play. First performed in 1998 at the Birmingham Rep, it transferred to the National and then later moved to Broadway where it was also a hit (despite attracting accusations of plagiarism; a messy situation, now resolved).

The play itself is a rare blend, both intellectually stimulating, examining the psychological and physical factors that can make human beings capable of committing the most appalling of acts, and emotionally rich, in its exploration of forgiveness.

Ten-year-old Rhona goes to visit her grandmother (echoes of Little Red Riding Hood) and never comes home again. For years her mother clings to the belief that her daughter is still alive, is out there somewhere. It is difficult to watch these early scenes, in which the mother refuses to give up hope, without thinking of the McCann family, especially as the girl’s remains are eventually found only a few feet from the spot where she vanished, in a disused shed.

A man is arrested for her rape and murder, as well as for those of several other, similarly aged girls. In prison he is interviewed by Agnetha, a criminal psychologist, researching the mind of the serial killer for the lecture that becomes the linking device around which the play hangs: “Serial Killing, a Forgivable Act”. In the process of studying him, talking to him, she finds herself getting to know the man as well as the murderer.

The play is a somewhat static thing, beginning as three interlinking monologues, with the characters only interacting in some of the later scenes. Sonia Fraser’s production is solid rather than spectacular, enhanced by a trio of excellent performances. Dorothy Lawrence has poise and presence as Rhona’s mother, a woman finding a way to survive the most devastating of losses. Rosalind Cressy also strikes the right note, as the panic attack-prone psychologist who posits that some serial killers are made through abuse in youth and brain injury rather than inherently ‘evil.’ Her performance combines an academic coolness with a very human fallibility (she sends unwise, booze-fuelled emails and is terrified of flying). As the girl’s killer, Jack James stays just the right side of a fragile line. He is repellent, creepy without warning he switches from something approaching charm to barking hate-laden obscenities – and unnervingly emotionally removed, yet not completely unsympathetic there is something human in there.

Frozen is full of piercing details: the reaction of the mother on seeing her daughter’s remains, the poignant reminder from the dead girl’s sister, Ingrid, now an adult, that she didn’t die, that she is still here and still needs a mother too.

Though simply staged the set is basic, furnished with little more than a lectern and a slide projection screen this is such a gripping and well paced production that, despite its length (a little over two and half hours) you don’t begrudge the time spent on Riverside Studios’ buttock-unfriendly seating. This play of horror and humanity remains powerful and relevant, perhaps more so now than ever.

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