Frozen starts with a shrink having a panic attack. She hyperventilates into her hand-bag and then gets drunk on an aeroplane where she yells out, ‘We’re all going to die.’ She’s a bit loopy, clearly, which is how lazy playwrights make psychologists interesting. The shrink’s task is to examine Ralph, a serial murderer of children, and to deliver a lecture on the cause of his malignity. We hear bits from the lecture, bits of confession from Ralph, and weepy bits from the mother of one of Ralph’s victims.
The subject is punishingly gruesome but its dramatic power is non-existent because the writer Bryony Lavery hasn’t learned how to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. Good dramatic dialogue works obliquely, and enigmatically, through concealment and partial revelation which is sometimes involuntary and sometimes deliberate. This gives the audience an active role in the process of gathering and sifting the threads and half-threads and trying to assess what, if any, meaning they render. Lavery doesn’t write like this. Each of her characters is a gobby chump who recites their thoughts and feelings like the town crier. The result is flat, empty, deadening.
The big box-office draw here is Suranne Jones, as Nancy, the grieving mum, but she’s hardly stretched playing a saintly northern drudge who shrieks and sniffles a lot, or stands up very erect, looking defiant and proud while chain-smoking. She’s composed of clichés. As is Ralph the psycho (Jason Watkins), who has a twitch, a limp, a Brummie accent, a beer gut, a bald patch, a creepy manner, a curved spine, a drink problem, a tattoo habit, no money, no brains, no job and no friends.
When the shrink starts to examine him she hasn’t a clue what she’s after. She measures his skull and sets him tests that are so arbitrary — ‘list some words beginning with f’ — that the results could be adduced as proof of any theory imaginable. Then she explores three well-known clinical hypotheses. First, the ‘skull-bump’ theory which states that frontal-lobe damage can turn anyone into a killer. Second, the ‘child-rape’ theory which suggests that sexual abuse in infancy can trigger psychosis in adulthood. Third, the ‘innate evil’ theory which claims that murderers are just nasty gits. This one seems to be borne out by Ralph’s statement that killing children should be legal. Then again, the other theories are also proved by Ralph’s story. He was raped as a child and he twice suffered frontal-lobe damage in adolescence. So he offers evidence for all three hypotheses. Which makes him a useless test-case for anyone wishing to examine their competing claims.
Not that the shrink is interested in the truth. She just wants to demonstrate her nobility of character by forgiving Ralph. And she duly gives him a big friendly hug. Then she gets weirdly possessive about him. When the grieving mum seeks a meeting with Ralph, the shrink cites ‘clinical reasons’ to stop them seeing one another. What she really means is ‘hands off my boyfriend’. Mum arranges the date anyway. And what does she say to her child’s killer? Naturally, she apologises to him for not bringing him wild flowers, including, bizarrely, ‘pussy willow’. This is the play’s most surreal moment. The message to mothers from Planet Lavery appears to be: if some violent tosser rapes and murders your daughter, give the poor man a hug and some flowers.
Who, I wonder, would pay money to endure this grisly and exploitative ordeal? And why is the freak show adorned with pictures of bloodied hands and eerie glimpses of a schoolgirl skulking in the shadows? These snuff-movie touches could please only perverts who find child murder a turn-on. If I were a detective looking for serial killers I’d stake out this show.
A Passage To India, adapted and co-directed by Simon Dormandy, is fascinating. But perhaps for the wrong reasons. E.M. Forster’s story of a rape case in Edwardian India introduces us to characters who are unashamedly racist all the time. The Brits hate the Muslims. The Muslims hate the Hindus and the Hindus hate them back. And no one makes any bones about it. This suggests that to voice these anxieties in public may be the natural condition of humanity, and that our society — where taboos silence our tongues — is an aberration.
This is a decent version of a well-known tale. Liz Crowther gives Mrs Moore a certain leathery-voiced magnificence and Phoebe Pryce brings out the passionate delicacy of the confused Adela. Elsewhere the acting is a bit shouty but the visuals are ingenious. The players use bamboo sticks and a blanket to suggest an elephant bearing a howdah. With the same props they recreate an express train going full tilt. If Peter Brook had staged these effects he’d have been hailed for delivering further proof of his genius.