FROM innocuous beginnings, the play Frozen suddenly hits you between the eyes like an icy snowball thrown at you with great pace. Painful and unexpected – and the pain lingers.
The result is that Frozen sometimes makes for an uncomfortable night out, although the play sucks you in and challenges all the preconceptions you may bring with you into the theatre. Are serial murderers born to commit their sins? Or they are also victims of horrible deeds in childhood that then turn them into killing machines? Challenging stuff.
Written by Bryony Lavery, Frozen centres on the abduction and murder of a young 10 year old girl Rhona by a vile individual called Ralph Ian Wantage (brilliantly played by Jason Watkins).
Ralph lives alone, is self-justifying, sneers and has a suitcase full of dodgy videos meticulously filed away (Lesbian Lolita At School, Pre-Teen Trio, et al).
Attracting tattoos like flies (his undoing), Ralph’s modus operandi is to persuade young girls to get into the back of his van where pillows and a sleeping bag awaits. As does a shed where he does evil things and suffocates them.
Rhona’s mother, Nancy Shirley (Suranne Jones), is quite naturally distraught at her girl’s disappearance. ‘Rhona, where are you?’ she cries. ‘I know you’re somewhere.’
When Ralph is finally caught 20 years later trying to abduct another young girl, his vile game is up and he is imprisoned for life at Long Larton Maximum Security Prison. He has a history of abduction and murder as long as your arm (seven murders, including Rhona’s).
This brings him to the attention of Doctor Agnetha Gottmundsdottir (Nina Sosanya), a psychiatric academic who is looking into what turns humans into inhuman beings and triggers their despicable crimes. The title of her work? ‘Serial Killing: A Forgiveable Act?
Her work is all about researching the ‘frozen Arctic Sea’ that is the criminal brain. She wins over the trust of the Jekyll and Hyde character that is Ralph and is able to perform a number of tests on him. One moment, he proclaims himself to be a gentleman. The next, he is calling her the ‘c’ word. Ralph makes you cringe and want to rush out of the theatre in search of the nearest shower.
Yet through probing away Agnetha ‘discovers’ that Ralph suffered physical violence as a child at the hands of his abusive mother, sustaining injuries in the process. Injuries perpetuated in his teens as a result of falling off a roof, being involved in a car accident and plunging down a mine shaft. Also horrible things done to him by his stepdad.
After one session in which Ralph tells Agnetha where he would like to put his fingers, he asks: ‘Was I out of order then?’ Her response says it all: ‘Yeah, sorta. But it’s ok, Ralph. It’s not your fault. You can’t help it.’
The Frozen jigsaw is completed by Nancy and her coming to terms with Rhona’s murder. At times she wants Ralph to suffer like Rhona did. On other occasions, she is encouraged by her other daughter Ingrid to let go of her anger and to visit Ralph and forgive him. Against the advice of Agnetha, she acts on Ingrid’s words and reduces the murderer to tears. Will he apologise for what he did? Or is he too tormented to do so? It is a close run thing.
The play’s climax is somewhat horrific. But It also provides a certain symmetry to proceedings as Agnetha – not without troubles of her own – and Nancy are brought together and discuss the play’s crux. Namely, are the crimes committed by the likes of Ralph Wantage a result of illness or evil?
As Agnetha argues in her work, an unforgiving society demands we look at them as acts of pure evil. A braver society – less punishment focused – would be prepared to be more understanding. Symptoms, not sins.
Frozen is a demanding play not without fault (Agnetha’s angst over an affair with a long standing colleague is distracting). But it will make you squirm in your seat for most of the night. It is well directed by Jonathan Munby and staged quite brilliantly by Paul Wills.
Although Suranne Jones is the star billing, there is no doubt the play’s true star is Jason Watkins. There is not a moment when he is on stage that you feel anything but utter revulsion for his character – feeding your anti-Agnetha view that you should show no remorse for such a sick and twisted individual. Watkins’ Ralph deserves everything he gets. Indeed, his Ralph continues to send shivers of repulsion down my spine.
The young girls who play the ghost of Rhona (Lydia Coghlan, Clara Read and Grace Salsoni) should also be commended. Fleeting but brave roles in such a chilling play.