Bryony Lavery’s remarkable play tackles our attitude towards crime and punishment – rehabilitation vs. retribution – and particularly our attitude towards child-abusers and serial killers. It premiered in 1998 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, followed by a critically acclaimed run at the National Theatre. “Killing isn’t exciting,” says Lavery. “It is such a banal act, a dull act – the most uncreative thing a human being can do. I wanted to get that across.”
Much of her research for the piece was based on a book called The Murder of Childhood by Ray Wyre, who has worked extensively with sex offenders and it also draws directly from the experiences and events described in Salvaging the Sacred by Marian Partington, whose sister Lucy was murdered by Fred West and whose remains were not found for 20 years.
Set in modern-day England, Frozen follows Nancy, whose daughter Rhona vanished on her way to her grandmother’s; Ralph the killer, a serial child molester and murderer; and Agnetha an American psychiatrist, who works with serial killers, studying the Arctic frozen sea that is the criminal brain.
Through a series of interwoven monologues and flash- backs and forths, we are introduced to the characters and the events. Only towards the end is there some interaction between the characters, who often simultaneously occupy the stage but are always solitary; initially between Agnetha and Ralph; then between Agnetha and Nancy; and finally between Ralph and Nancy.
Each character is frozen and inaccessible in its own grief. Nancy is living every parent’s worst fear and only after her daughter’s remains have been found and buried is she able to attempt to move forward. Agnetha has been secretly in love with her colleague David and his sudden death has left her grief stricken. At the same time in her professional capacity she has to be an objective observer and assessor of facts, detached from any feeling, clinical. Finally Ralph, the villain; methodical and remorseless, an abused turned abuser as it turns out.
Lavery’s text is paced, temperate and at the same time resonant. It is well researched with poignant moments, like the scene at the funeral parlour and the meeting between Nancy and Ralph, with Agnetha’s humour as a safety valve against gore.
But the production unfortunately never found its rhythm. The alternation between monologues is too fast and does not allow the spectator time to engage, nor does it allow for the provocative questions that it poses to be digested. For a play that should be a punch in the gut, we are left strangely untouched.