Arts: An indelicate subject gets the gentle touch

Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of new play `Frozen' explores the evils we shy away from in an extremely watchable way.
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NANCY despairs of Ingrid, her wayward daughter. "It's like negotiating with Attila the Hun," she quips. Which just about sums up Bryony Lavery's remarkable new play Frozen, which turns out to be a series of increasingly indelicate negotiations handled with astonishing dramatic delicacy.

As Lavery explains in an illuminating interview in the programme, it began as an investigation into the banality of evil but swiftly became an examination of the power of good. If that sounds like the thesis of a giant Iris Murdoch novel, Frozen is actually a tightly knit, 20- year journey across an emotional minefield.

One lovely sunny evening, 10-year-old Rhona goes missing. Her mother, Nancy, retreats into a state of frozen hope. Meanwhile, Agnetha (Josie Lawrence) is in Birmingham researching into the difference between crimes committed through evil and illness: "A sin or a symptom?"

Then there's Ralph (Tom Georgeson) a loner with "a bit of previous". All three gradually link up, but as Ruari Murchison's austerely eloquent design and Tim Mitchell's superb lighting indicate, each of them is isolated by different forms of grief.

Lavery mirrors this by using monologues. Sometimes these are a little over-explanatory (Agnetha's lecture, for example) which slows the momentum, but elsewhere the device has real dramatic purpose. The characters are compelled to confess, to tell their stories not only to us but to themselves.

This is particularly true of Nancy. Anita Dobson gives a superbly measured performance, summed up by the moment where she finally faces the truth. She takes all the time in the world and the audience responds with an equivalent rapt intensity.

By obscene coincidence, this subject matter is alarmingly topical and Lavery refuses to shy away from her story's terrifying implications. She knows that it's the dramatists responsibility to explore the evils we shy away from, but her unflagging imagination deflects the horror for the audience and renders the unbearable supremely watchable.

The most shocking aspect of the writing is its engrossing restraint. At the heart of the play is an act of unspeakable violence but we are never forced to witness it. Graphic depictions are at best redundant when compared with the importance of our immediate and considered responses to the consequences of murder. Only when Ralph is banged up in a cell does violence finally break loose and even then it is at one remove, residing in the immensely powerful boiling language.

Bill Alexander's spacious, detailed direction consistently avoids undignified, obvious moves. He has taken the wise decision of producing the play in the vast auditorium of the main house, to give the idea space to resonate among a big audience.

More importantly, he refuses to insult our intelligence by taking sides. As Ralph lovingly lists the names, "Sweet Susan, Little Linda, Baby Bonny...", Alexander adds rose-coloured light and floats in strains of Handel's Largo. Ralph's list may sound like flowers, but, in fact, they are videos. Very nasty videos which he packs into the suitcase which he clutches to his heart. Together with Georgeson's unstintingly honest performance, the scene is completely sincere and profoundly unnerving.

It's all too easy to ambush an audience's tear ducts by subject matter alone. Reviewing the schlocky Seventies TV mini-series Holocaust, Dennis Potter destroyed the defence that it was "moving" with the remark that "if you can't make the murder of six million Jews moving you shouldn't be in television".

Not for one moment does Lavery hitch a ride on the horror of her subject matter or succumbed to eliciting unearned emotion. The movement of the play is consistently surprising, and even bravely comic. Potentially explosive scenes are quietly beautiful, and apparently insignificant moments suddenly quiver with passion. The almost thriller-like promise of the play's climactic confrontation is like a time-bomb ticking in the back of your head but even there, Lavery delivers the unexpected.

As Nancy tells it, Ingrid wakes from a bad dream. "I'm in the frozen Arctic and I'm exploring but I'm no good at it." Well, she may not be, but Lavery certainly is. Don't be put off by the subject (or the disgracefully unappealing publicity). Frozen is really about courage and compassion. It is also intelligent, imaginative and supremely uplifting. The only thing really wrong with it is that it closes on the 23 May.

`Frozen' is at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, 0121 236 4455.

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