Friday 24 February 2012

Frozen - Review

Maltings Arts Theatre, St Albans


Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Stephen Cunningham

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

24 February 2012

Frozen touches upon some of the darkest aspects of (in)humanity and is written to be performed within simple staging parameters. The cast comprises Ralph, a serial killing paedophile, Nancy the grieving mother whose 10 year old daughter Rhona, he has murdered and Agnetha, a psychiatrist responsible for assessing his behaviour. It is a challenging production to stage.

The play opens with Nancy tending her garden and sending Rhona on an errand, the journey that will lead to her being snatched. Interestingly, a gardening theme is echoed in the National Theatre’s London Road, written 13 years later. This popular domestic activity is now being recognised as a metaphor by which normal sub/urban life can be defined, a task so humdrum and routine that it throws into sharp contrast the horror of a nearby murder.

The aims and scope of the play are massive. With a lot of the text delivered as monologues, some deeply distressing, there is a huge responsibility upon the cast to carry the intensity of Lavery’s writing effectively. There is nowhere for an actor to hide within this production.

Ralph is possibly one of the darkest monsters of modern theatre. An apparently typical “white van man”, no Hannibal Lecter he, his most chilling feature being this apparent normality. John Stenhouse tackles the role admirably, portraying a breadth of emotion as he told Ralph’s story. However, whilst he had breadth, I felt he lacked depth. I have seen an audience flinch in disgust and loathing as Ralph describes aspects of his perverted sexual appetite, but Stenhouse failed to reach the understated menace that surrounds his character’s supposed normality and which, in the right hands, can chill an entire theatre.

If Ralph is the darkest modern monster, then the role of Nancy is arguably one of the most harrowing. Debbie Oakes as Nancy played the role sensitively, avoiding the slip from tragedy to melodrama, however for me, her harrow was just not deep enough. It felt as though we were spectating upon her pain, rather than sharing it. In her closing speech to act one, acknowledging the grief that her surviving elder daughter Ingrid has suffered following the murder, Oakes moved me deeply, but those moments were all too rare.

As Agnetha, Lisa White is excellent, accurately portraying not only the doctor's own sense of personal guilt and confusion as a sub-plot unfolds, but also her sense of cluttered mania, as she attempts to manage the therapeutic assessments of Ralph, as well as her own complicated life.

Phil Hamilton’s sound and lighting design enhanced the production, with effective backgrounds to mood and scene.

Sadly on press night there was only a sparse audience in St Albans. Given the hard work and effort that the cast had clearly put into this show, such a poor attendance is disappointing, but it begs the question: Was the show poorly marketed, or was there simply no appetite for such bleak and upsetting theatre in an out of town venue? As in the big city, regional productions are entitled to challenge audiences as well as entertain then, but with London only 30 minutes away by train, a production as dark and adult as Frozen needs to be simply outstanding if an audience is to be attracted.

The play’s writing is largely 5-star and for the power of the text to be conveyed it needs actors of a similar calibre. Anything less, and the arc of this painful story freezes.

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