Audiences may come to this production drawn by the star power of Suranne Jones but they will leave talking about Jason Watkins. His performance as Ralph, a serial killer and paedophile who abducts children, is strikingly sinister, a creepy tour de force.
The curious thing is that Jones, playing the mother of his latest victim, never reaches the same pitch. In TV dramas from Unforgiven to Doctor Foster, Jones has done soulful suffering better than anyone. On the small screen, her resonant voice and those doom-filled eyes get you every time. Here, she doesn’t find the tragic register, so we understand the suffering of Nancy, the grieving mother, but we never quite feel it.
It doesn’t help that the play unfolds initially as a series of monologues, giving us carved-off slices of story. Nancy addresses the audience, describing the day she sent her ten-year-old daughter on a fateful errand, delivering garden shears to her gran.
Then Ralph talks us through his methodical approach to abduction and murder, breezily proud of how organised he is – “You’ve got to wake up very early to get ahead of me…” – and showing off his suitcase full of kiddie-porn videos as if it were a family album.
The third point of a tragic triangle is Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), the American criminal psychiatrist who comes to Britain to interview Ralph, and has her own theory about serial murderers: they’re not evil but sick, she argues, and their crimes are symptoms.
Agnetha tries to make sense of the senseless, and so does the play, peering hard into the mindset of a monster. On marbled grey screens that hang around the stage we see brain scans projected, and what could be neural patterns. The significance of the title is that Agnetha wants to explore “The Arctic Sea that is the criminal brain.”
It’s clear that the real crime is to let your emotions ice over, to freeze out feeling – which, it must be said, sounds like the message of a certain Disney film of the same name. When, as Nancy confronts him, Ralph briefly un-freezes and registers the terrible harm he has done, the play has its most piercing moment.
It was written by Bryony Lavery in 1998 at a time when paedophile-related dramas had not yet become a staple. Then it must have felt like a bold departure, staring into a heart of darkness. Now it’s well worth seeing for Watkins’ performance alone, a shifty take on the banality of evil that will be hard to forget.
Frozen is at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 5 May