Speaking directly to theatregoers is a privilege relatively few characters are allowed. Some abuse it (Iago in Othello lies to us, Salieri in Amadeus defames the paying customers as “mediocrities”), while Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Shakespeare’s Richard III deliver top comic stand-up.
Theatre’s invisible fourth wall has rarely, though, been more jaggedly broken than in Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play Frozen, a National Theatre and Broadway success now granted a starry 20th anniversary West End revival. Ralph (Jason Watkins), a serial rapist and murderer of children, chattily soliloquises about the corpses and torture-porn videos stored in his lock-up garage. His eyeline makes us stand-ins for the unseen young girl whom he is cajoling (“hello, hello, hello”) into the van he calls his “centre of operations”. Lavery also grants monologue rights – between dialogue scenes – to Nancy (Suranne Jones), the mother of one victim, and Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), a trans-Atlantic academic seeking fresh ground in the contest over whether psychotic behaviour results from choice or conditioning.
This is clearly a subject in which Lavery has not lost interest. By neat coincidence, the new Frozen opened the night before the world premiere, at the York Theatre Royal, of her powerful and theologically faithful adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Pinkie Brown, Greene’s Roman Catholic baddie, believes in the devil and hell more than in God and heaven, and chooses damnation as his eternal reward. Less challengingly to most sensibilities, Lavery’s Ralph has been overturned by circumstance: beaten and sexually abused when young, he is shown, through Agnetha’s neurological testing, to be stunted in those parts of the cerebral cortex that control emotion and empathy.
The theory that early neglect can program depravity into a brain was radical when Frozen was written. (Lavery faced accusations of plagiarism – later amicably resolved – over her channelling of the research of one academic.) Such views have now spread to the extent that Andrea Leadsom, the proudly maternalist MP, advocated, at a Tory leadership hustings, a programme of post-natal cranial massage to improve social outcomes in deprived areas.
The accents used may initially surprise the audience. Jones employs her native Lancastrian, rather than the crisp posh of her GP in BBC One’s Doctor Foster. To the possible regret of the Midlands tourist board, Watkins chooses an insinuating Brummie grumble for the serial child-killer. And Agnetha, Scandinavian-American in the text, is, in Nina Sosanya’s performance, very stridently New York.
The performers draw out every subtlety in the writing. Lavery does not definitively attribute the antagonist’s monstrosity to either damaged head or evil heart, and the portrayals maximise this ambiguity. Watkins’s Ralph, so physically corkscrewed that he could be auditioning for the crookback king, seems clearly to be making moral choices: adopting a children’s TV-like persona to lure schoolgirls, visibly and chillingly losing interest when the subject of an anecdote is revealed to be an adult woman. Watkins also leaves open the possibility that some of Ralph’s accounts of his childhood are a self-exculpating fantasy.
Sosanya’s pious, narcissistic Agnetha richly emphasises the text’s hint that the neatness of her theories about Ralph may overcompensate for a recent horror in her private life. Even Nancy, easy to play as the sainted mother of a martyr, is given spikes: snippy with her husband and other daughter, slyly using her celebrity status to get her way in the children’s charities she runs. The play is as concerned with Nancy’s psychological wiring – can the brutally bereaved achieve redemption and forgiveness? – and Jones shows searingly every stage of this nightmare journey.
The problem of a chamber play in a big Georgian theatre is elegantly solved in Jonathan Munby’s production and Paul Wills’s set design by the sliding in or out of single items – the victim’s girlishly blush-pink bed, Ralph’s skimpily white prison bunk, a business-class airline seat – suggesting a wider environment.
The play’s title reflects its organising metaphorical idea that a brain might be stilled, like ice, by what is done to it in childhood. But a good play must be fluid, running afresh for new times or teams. Two decades on, Frozen shows itself to be, in every sense, capable of moving.
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
“Frozen” runs until 5 May
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left