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The Ockerbys On Ice opens not with a scene, or even dialogue per se, but with a presentation. Blue DNA strands are displayed on television screens mounted around the stage, while smoke fills the area and a soft electronic arpeggio plays in the background. Not really what you’d expect from a play with a tagline of ‘How far would you go to be with the one you love?’
Indeed, the play’s premise contrasts this seemingly cliché quote, as it tackles the subject of cryogenic freezing and, hiding behind the aesthetic of genteel comedy drama, attempts to have a serious discussion about scientific ethics in wake of revolutionary technological developments.
David Crellin and Karen Henthorn play Dennis and Viv Ockerby respectively, a middle-aged couple who win a chance at cryogenically freezing their own bodies, so as to wake up in the future where a cure might exist for Dennis’ terminal illness. Their arc involves estranged son Michael, who has been distanced from the family ever since going on a gap year.
Writer Debbie Oates is definitely on to something smart in aiming to set a self-described ‘simple love story’ in the context of a scientific discovery that may make or break the relationship, and it’s nice, for a change, to see a quasi-sci-fi drama with characters in it who look older than 25. But even though the fusion of the genres romance and science fiction is certainly interesting, it is not always harmonious.
In the first half, a fair bit of the action is stalled as we have to trudge through some slightly expository dialogue, as Lynsey Beauchamp’s Dr Taylor addresses the audience directly in her presentation, explaining the science, origins and possibilities of cryogenic suspension, intercut with a scene in which Viv delivers a monologue whilst waiting for a train. The philosophy and ethics of this new science is without a doubt an extremely important topic, but it seems a shame to address it in such an expository way, as Taylor literally explains its history to the audience. It’s also not necessarily the most dynamic way to start off a play.
Though once the monologues are finished and dialogue begins between Viv and her son, and also with Dr Taylor, Oates’ skills as a writer begin to shine through. Karen Henthorn is clearly the star of the show and carries the dialogue effortlessly, her physicality perfectly embodying Viv’s optimism and hope despite the crushing circumstances. Crellin is equally entertaining, with one-liners and puns bouncing around, yet his character feels a little one-dimensional until a twist at the end of the first half.
From then on, the play gets much darker, relatively speaking, and also pacier, as Oates makes the characters really move, unshackled from the chains of scientific exposition. We see a much more psychologically traumatised Dennis, a departure from his previous characterisation, and begin to question this seemingly immortal process of freezing bodies into the future. The final scene is set on a hotel balcony in Edinburgh, and the balcony set that juts out from the corner of the stage is lit up by a kaleidoscopic range of colours as fireworks roar from the Edinburgh Tattoo; an emotional and climactic end to the play, which utilises the full dramatic range of the theatre.
Despite the play’s flaws, Henthorn’s naturalistic northern physicality delivers the audience from start to end in the palm of her hand. It’s her character, Viv, that we are emotionally indebted to, and without her, the play would fall apart. Oates has penned an interesting drama that, although sometimes succumbing to pacing and genre errors, remains intact and engaging. It’s a shame to see the Dukes theatre almost empty, because The Ockerbys On Ice is an original drama well worth checking out. It would be a shame to leave it unseen, frozen in ice, suspended in a moment that probably won’t be thawed.