Monday, 4 March 2013

Playing a serial killer in Frozen by Byrony Lavery

Description of the play 'Frozen' written by Bryony Lavery.

“One evening ten year old Rhona goes missing. Her mother Nancy, retreats into a state of frozen hope. Agnetha, an academic, comes to England to research a thesis titled “Serial Killings: A Forgivable Act?” Then there's Ralph, a loner with a bit of a record who’s looking for some distraction … Drawn together by horrific circumstances, these three embark upon a long, dark journey that finally curves upward into the light in this big - brave, compassionate play about grief, revenge, forgiveness and bearing the unbearable.” (The Guardian)

Robert Hewison of The Sunday Times (London) describes it thus: 'A profound, hypnotising drama about the moral and emotional effect on both the relatives of victims and the murderer.... (It) rewards you at last with a sense of understanding and release.'

In Frozen the playwright Bryony Lavery examines the almost unbearable subject of abducted and murdered children ( young girls in this case) but carefully manages to avoid either sensationalism or sentimentality. Her play 'Frozen' has a cast of three characters, (with two extra – non speaking roles in the original text and Birmingham Rep 1998 production) who speak as much to the audience as they do to each other later in the play. The majority of the writing is structured through individual soliloquy and further into the play develops into two person dialogues.

The story:

The mother Nancy, sends her ten year old daughter Rhona round to her grandma's with a pair of secateurs and never sees her again. She conducts her own fraught journey of initial dis-belief and terror at one of her two daughters going missing to that of support for other families in equally terrible strife through a support organisation called FLAME.

The American psychiatrist, Agnetha Gottsmundottir, is exploring an academic theory that child abuse causes profound and pathological changes in the structure of the brain as surely as physical injury does and brings herself, and her clinical and personal convictions, to study Ralph in soliarty confinement and lecture on her findings.

Many years after Rhona disappears, Ralph is caught and it becomes Agnetha's job to interrogate him in prison. It quickly becomes clear that he provides further proof for her theory, in particular that abused children lack the ability to create emotional bonds, that their brains actually look different from those with happier backgrounds.


Ralph Ian Wantage is the serial killer of young girls who cares only for his tattoos and his secret collection of child porn videos. He is an isolated obsessive whose sensibilities and conscience are indeed, Frozen. Ralph shows no remorse at all; his only concern is that killing girls isn't legal. He fantasises about a childhood in which he was 'spoilt rotten' and his mum and dad sat around reading poetry. To Nancy, however, he describes a father who washed his mouth out with soap and water and beat him viciously on the side of his head. Forced by Nancy to recognise what he has done, he is unable to cope any more, commits suicide.

Playing Ralph:

The director Gill Scott and the Lace Market Theatre cast discussed the themes of the play at length and I watched the acclaimed film The Woodsman (Kevin Bacon) and read several articles about the grim subject of child abduction and murder. Not easy reading but interesting in trying to understand the motives of the character I was to play. The director and I discussed how he would move, dress, talk and behave and it was agreed that he would dress quite smartly with a shirt and tie and be clean shaven. Most of the first act her wears a casual jacket to hide the tattoos on his arms that were revealed later in the play. We felt that he strove to be as 'normal' as he could be, to avoid detection.

Ralph's character 'celebrates' his killings with a tattoo after each event and as he travels around the   northern parts of the country in his van he gets to know the best tattooists around certain areas. The tattoos were described in the text, that he confesses to the audience. as being all over his body.

The first practical problem that raised itself was how do we do these tattoos? I looked all over for some fake ones that could be applied each night but the tattoos were so specific (Sunburst dagger of Death – Angels fighting with devils) that it would have been very hard to find the right sort. After a fair battle to find a solution the actress playing Agnetha came up with a solution. She had a friend who might be agreeable to coming to the theatre prior to every performance to paint them on my arms. Luckily this young lady was a skilled face painter and applied her skills to creating some false tattoos based on my designs. When he tells the audience of his all over body tattoo prowess I just alluded to the others that were positioned on his back and legs.

Regarding the speech patterns of Ralph; I decided that his voice would have a slight impatient tone about it except where he got to his need to 'groom' the young girls and gain their trust in accepting a lift in his van from them. Then I changed his tone to something more avuncular as I thought, and the director concurred, his normal gravelly tone would just frighten his victim away. The often staccato text (for Ralph) itself helped in developing this decidedly odd character's way of behaving. He says “obviously” regularly throughout the play which to me indicated a man with very little patience and some of his other language is almost military – 'my centre of operations and logistically' and everything is spoken of as needing to be very organised. When he finally converses with Agnetha and the mother for often fabricates stories of his idyllic early family life and only when the mother presents to him, in a very gentle way,  photos of the daughter he has killed, does the realisation of what he has done start to hit home.

He was a very interesting character to play – some interesting foul language to work with and some dark moments to get through but overall I 'enjoyed' – if that's the word – playing Ralph each night in a very close and confined studio performance where you were very much in the audience's very nervous faces. There is often reference to catharsis in theatrical terms and the way this play ends the audience certainly have a cathartic ending. Obviously!

As the play was very episodic I made myself a list during the later rehearsals to remind myself of my entrances and exits and where I sat in this complex jigsaw of a play. I didn't use it during the week's run but it certainly helped to clarify what was what and indeed where.

Phil Lowe


 Amazon link above to a selection of plays by Byrony Lavery including Frozen. Click on link above to order.

Review from the Nottingham Post

Torments in the cold

Frozen by Bryony Lavery

Alan Geary

'From the moment we hear his harsh and fractured ramblings, and see his awkward gait, darting glances and madly rolling eyes we're convinced that Ralph (Phil Lowe) is a serial killer. This isn't caricature, this is frightening, accomplished acting. And, in the end, Lowe makes his character pathetic.

Bryony Lavery's beautifully wrought play, directed by Gill Scott as a studio piece, takes us deep into the mind of a child murderer.

It's also an exploration of the emotional plights of Nancy (Maeve Doggett), the mother of one of his victims, and Agnetha (Sylvia Robson), a psychiatrist studying the case, torn between professional duty and personal need – shades of Equus here.

Whether she's hanging out the washing or addressing a public meeting, Doggett never lets us forget that she's a soul in anguish.

And Agnetha, with her ringing American voice, professionally assertive but actually as vulnerable as her subjects, is brilliantly captured by Robson.

The three are talking sometimes to the theatre audience, sometimes to the audience at a lecture. And the narrative moves back and forth into different pockets of time. There's strong language and revolting dialogue but it is never gratuitous.

Thematically it's deeply upsetting -obviously; it's also sometimes touching. Despite the worrying confusion between the concepts of psychopath and paedophile, as a piece of theatre it could hardly be more rewarding.'

Alan Geary.

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