An intimate evening with a serial killer

Frozen, Bryony Lavery, directed by Will King, running at b current theatre, Artscape Wychwood Barns, to June 3.


Watching Frozen at the tiny, intimate b current theatre is like viewing close-up magic in the hands of a master prestidigitator. You can see every tiny move being made but no matter how closely you watch you can’t figure out how the trick is done.

The heavy-duty play about a British serial killer, the mother of one of his victims, and a psychiatrist studying him is performed by three actors of the Seven Siblings Theatre company, who are on stage only singly or in pairs, shuffling four small boxes that form the set and a very few handheld items.

Yet the play is entirely engrossing. After each scene the actors themselves move the props around, but the second the next scene begins they snap into their characters completely believably.

Especially difficult must be the challenge for Scott McCulloch, tasked with playing the pedophilic murderer, Ralph. Introduced as some kind of ordinary working class joe, he soon reveals the horror of his deeds and, more slowly, the depths of his psychopathy. Toward the end, we get some inkling of his own terrifying childhood and why he may be deserving of forgiveness, as well as some hope he may actually learn to empathize and to feel remorse — cut short in an unexpected action. Throughout, McCulloch maintains his character’s disturbingly relentless demeanour, changing but not not changing, never giving into the temptation of humanizing himself more than the minimal amount required in the script, never sucking up to the audience for sympathy. It’s a tremendous act.

The other two close-up magicians are equally compelling. Nancy McAlear as Nancy makes the heart-breaking transition from a mother who has been searching for her missing daughter for years into a mother learning her daughter is long dead and into a woman wrestling with twin urges to forgive her daughter’s murderer and to kill him.

Madryn McCabe has a different role from the perpetrator-and-victim duo. As American academic Agnetha who has come to England to study serial killers, part of her function is to explore Ralph’s psychology and explain his neuropathology to the audience. She does the latter from a lectern as if presenting at a seminar. Surprisingly this is not as dull as it may sound. It’s really quite enlightening and unusual to get some real science in the middle of a stage drama.

The thesis that Ralph is not really responsible for his awful crimes, as he couldn’t help it — his dreadful childhood, you know — is not as namby pamby liberal as you might also expect. The notion of inherent evil in people like Ralph is dispensed with, of course, but attributing his compulsions to upbringing and brain chemistry, making a victim of sorts out of him, does not lead to a solution either.

It may however help victims and survivors get past the traumatic incidents in their lives, which seems to be playwright Bryony Lavery’s point. It’s up to us. Or not.

The play Frozen (which will certainly never be confused with the Disney confection of that name) made its debut in England 20 years ago and has won awards there, as well as both on and off-Broadway. This Toronto production may be the smallest theatre it has ever played in. But it gives us the chance to engage with some terrific actors face to face in an examination of a very public issue in a manner that makes it very personal.