What is it to be human? What separates you and I from the Ted Bundys, Ian Bradys, and Fred Wests of this world? Is it remorse? Compassion? Forgiveness? These are questions that aren’t so much asked as demanded by Ian Brown’s revival of the play by Bryony Lavery. Whatever it is, it is not a ‘moral compass’.
A tight three-hander that demands equal punch from its actors, Frozen – which was originally staged at the Cottesloe in 2002 before transferring to Broadway in 2005 – explores the ways in which the act of murder binds perpetrator, bereaved, and rehabilitator into one indissoluble knot – an interdependence from which all three parties will never be free, at least not in this life.
Dr Agnetha Gottmundsdottir, an American psychiatrist who has fled her native home for England in the wake of the death her colleague Dr David Nabkus, is writing a thesis on the criminal mind entitled ‘Serial Killing: A Forgivable Act?’; her subject, Ralph Wantage, is a convicted paedophile responsible for the sexual abuse and deaths of a number of young children, among them 10 year old Rhona Shirley; Nancy is Rhona’s mother, who in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance has founded Flame, an organisation dedicated to finding and reuniting missing children with their parents. Rhona’s father, Bob, is notably absent from the stage, meaning that as an audience we are invited to read the play as being, at least in part, a meditation on what it is to be a woman dealing with bereavement.
But beyond this, we are asked to examine afresh what just might be the last taboo surrounding sex, and to consider paedophilia as illness rather than evil. With unflinching commitment to Lavery’s tautologically profound motif that ‘the difference between a crime of evil and a crime of evil is the difference between a sin and a symptom’, Blueprint Theatre chart the Arctic of the criminal mind with technical dexterity and an impressive attention to psychological detail.
Mark Rose excels as the psychotic Ralph Wantage, by turns opening up to Helen Schlesinger’s Agnetha, Sally Giles’ Nancy, and, by extension, us, only to retreat once more into a world pathological lies about a childhood filled with fireplaces and ‘poietry’. Everything about Rose’s portrayal, from the hyperactive blinking and subtle limp under pressure, right down to his ability to switch from the harmlessly affable to the threateningly volatile in the space of a single line, is mesmerising.
Jason Southgate’s design, though not in keeping with the 80s setting of the play, is both functional and adaptable, allowing for scene shifts with minimal staging changes and, thankfully, no blackouts. Meanwhile, upstage of the lino carpeted thrust, a blue cubed wall dominates the space, melting from Agnetha’s Arctic white winter to a green spring for Nancy under Charlie Lucas’ lighting, while Gareth McLeod’s score provides effective, if a little obvious, tear-jerking crescendos during the more distraught moments of Nancy’s maternal despair.
But for all its moments of heightened emotion, the production somehow fails to tug at the heart-strings, perhaps because Rose is the only one of the three to fully get to grips with the material, and the play requires all three characters to be on a par in this respect. Despite her tears in the opening scene, I can’t help thinking that Helen Scheslinger over-eggs Agnetha a bit. While Sally Giles’ Nancy never manages to completely convince in her decision to forgive Wantage.
In the closing scene, Nancy jokes with Agnetha that she’s glad Wantage is dead, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if it had been a joke? Blueprint Theatre’s production opens up the debate of what it is to be human, but ultimately seems to miss the central point of Lavery’s argument, that evil is not inherent.