‘FROZEN’ – Thoughts on a play about child sexual abuse and adults’ emotions

17th April, 2018

Yesterday I was invited by a friend to see the producton of ‘Frozen, a powerful drama directed by Jonathan Munby and written by Bryony Lavery about the disappearance of a 10-year-old girl and the repercussions for her mother, the paedophile serial killer of the girl and a psychiatrist/academic whose career included the study of men who commit such crimes. The play explores theories of neuropsychology, paedophile childhood histories of abuse, affective dysfunction (emotional paralysis) and forgiveness.

This is not a new play as it was first performed twenty years ago in Birmingham and won a Best New Play Award from the Theatrical Management Association and five years later made its debut with the Royal National Theatre. The current run is ‘strictly limited” for an eight week period and so it has about three more weeks to go. As reviewers have written, it tells a story that is all too human, as perennial as the grass and one that needs to be told but if the “why now”? question is asked I struggle to find a satisfactory answer. Accounts of crimes against children of this nature are, according to our press, increasing and organised and collective crime by multiple offenders is an aspect of this. I am not well-informed enough to know what new writers are offering but I cannot believe there are no new plays on this subject. Maybe we can only cope with a play of this nature if it is historical and also portrays child sexual abuse as one individual deviant’s aberration as opposed to a reflection of a whole society and its values?

The three primary characters were played skilfully by well-known actors: Suranne Jones, Nona Sosanya and Jason Watkins and there are a couple of minor parts, i.e. prison guard and the, presumably ghostly emanation of the lost girl. Ironically, the inclusion of these minor parts were where the play fell down for me. They neither added to the development of the story nor had dramatic value and jarred. The set, appropriately stark, was more than dramatic enough with huge black and white photographs of scenes of crimes and lost children coming into focus at key points.

It was a fascinating, engrossing and of course, disturbing experience but I left the theatre rather troubled by the use of the child actor for scenes in which confessions of the paedophile killer and his subsequent suicide by hanging took place. I am hoping very much that appropriate and thorough measures were taken in order to ensure their psychological and overall wellbeing pre and post production as well as during the actual performance and making efforts to find out. In my experience, where there are a number of child actors involved it is much easier for children to stay in touch with the awareness that a theatre production is an exercise of adult make-believe even when the play’s subject matter is all too believable. If only one child is involved, as appears to be the case with ‘Frozen’ the intensity of being involved necessitates some particularly careful management. I am sure the producers will have liaised carefully with the Local Authorities in which any child actors are resident and the whole production team will have been thoroughly briefed regarding a whole host of measures required by the legislation and guidance regarding young actors but still I am left with the powerful images of the final scene in particular.

Postscript, 18th May

Recently, I heard via social media that lead actress Suranne Jones had been taken ill with a mystery illness and had tweeted that the content of this play had taken its toll on her health.

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