Bryony Lavery’s ‘Frozen’ reads like a dream. It’s a very basic play – here are your characters, they are captivating enough to learn from. Here are your words, the stage directions are totally flexible, the set is not described. Roll with it and come up with something great. What could possibly go wrong, I thought, as I entered DT3 to the swinging, big banding notes of Harry Warren’s Chattanooga Choo Choo.
The thicker the issues, the stronger the cast needs to be, especially when the intention of the piece is to leave the audience ambiguous or more cemented in their stance. In this piece, we are presented with a child murderer, Ralph (Raj Bhandal), who undergoes psychoanalytical sessions with Agnetha, a shrink (Holly Francis), to get to the bottom of his actions. Meanwhile, we have a bereaved mother, Nancy (Hannah Mook), falling to pieces as she wrestles with her ability to forgive and move on. Did the cast argue their cases well? Just Hannah Mook – hers was the only performance that exhibited a hike through resentment, grief, upset, deterioration and overall complacency; Raj Bhandal was only interesting to watch when he was confronted by the guilt he feels upon meeting Nancy. The rest of the time, a possible attempt at being cold and blank came across as dull, and left Ralph devoid of much to appreciate.
At only one point in the play did I find my teeth cracking under the pressure of their gritting. Ralph comes to life, the remorse in his chest spreads and pumps tears from his eyes as he ties a knot in a bedsheet, while a half-made noose knowingly swings from the rafters. He attaches the final sheet, climbs atop his chair and inserts his head, shaking as he does so. “Hello”, come his final words. The lady sat next to me is crying, twenty heads in front of me edge closer, my program is just below my eyes. He extends his leg, ready to drop. Blackout… Then he removes the noose and throws himself to the ground in the most ridiculous fashion.
Holly Francis, who knocked myself and a hundred others sideways in Robin Peters’ and Michael Cole’s breathtaking production of ‘Oleanna’, would have benefited from an understanding of psychiatrists. Here we have a profession which, when practiced, is unshockable and intently focused. This comes across well when she convincingly lectures on the mechanics of damaged brains and the behaviour they cause , but not when she’s gawping open mouthed at Ralph whenever he reveals a new atrocity, and generally treating him contemptuously – in the real world, she would be struck off, and her reactions made it all the more difficult for an audience to hear Ralph’s explanations without bias. After a comical panic attack and a rendition of ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, delivered with the gusto of Patti LuPone on Broadway, it was impossible to take seriously the strongest character in the play – the good doctor is insane from the moment the lights go up.
‘Frozen’ does not gain from DT3’s traverse stage, as the characters rarely ventured from their allocated spaces. Some could read the open and cathartic book that the inimitable Hannah Mook offered throughout, some had to crane their necks just to catch a fleeting glance of the blurb. In the key scenes, our killer is subjected to physical tests which elicit subtle eye movements and bodily tics; and asks questions which bring out all manner of dimensions from the offender. Therefore, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to play this out at the far end of the stage. 25% of the audience couldn’t see Ralph’s face because they were behind him, 10% couldn’t because Agnetha was blocking him and 40% could barely see it because they were so far away. That’s 25% audience appreciation for 25% effort.
Another blocking screw-up occurred in a scene set on board a plane, in which Agnetha sat on one of the two front rows. More maths; 50% of the audience had a perfect view, 50% enjoyed a monologue delivered by the back of her head. Add to this a series of jarring sound effects, some worthless and some flat-out indecipherable, incidental music fading up in the middle of scenes and subtracting from the drama when a cold silence would’ve added to it, and the story is hindered by its staging.
There was no single atrocity in this production that rendered it unwatchable, but a slew of obvious, avoidable and downright foolish mistakes snowballed into an under-realised interpretation, with only a few flashes of brilliance. Perhaps it could have benefited from a lengthier rehearsal period – five weeks isn’t enough time for a part-time cast and crew to hit Frozen’s nail on the head.