The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2014
We are accustomed to seeing sign language interpreters at the side of the stage, translating plays for deaf audience members. New theatre company fingersmiths give us much more than that in a way that enhances the performance for those of us fortunate to be able to hear.
Each of the three characters in Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play is portrayed by a pair of actors, one speaking, the other signing. The result is more than translation. Often the signer reveals the inner life of the speaker. Sometimes the signs anticipate the words – it’s an intriguing psychological approach to a play that deals with the human mind, its workings and malfunctions.
And so we get parallel performances occupying the same space, but the actors are also linked, like shadows, like reflections, like twins. It is absolutely captivating.
The play deals with the disappearance of a young girl and the subsequent arrest of a man charged with her abduction and murder. As the girl’s mother, Hazel Maycock is superb, delivering monologues in an offhand, matter-of-fact fashion that Alan Bennett would kill for. This serves to intensify the anguish of later, heart-rending speeches. Equally powerful is Maycock’s signing counterpart, Jean St Clair. By definition, the signers give a more expressive performance, as counterpoints to the naturalism of the speaking players. It’s hypnotic.
Marvellous Mike Hugo is stunningly good as serial killer Ralph, convincing in his psychosis and outbursts of rage. He and his signer Neil Fox-Roberts, have a sort of relationship, breaking the convention, interacting with each other, like a mind fractured in two, or like each other’s evil twin.
Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri play brain expert Agnetha, whose professional swagger barely conceals anxiety and vulnerability. Both convey the contrasts very well.
It’s a play about damaged lives and what damages them. Lavery (and Hugo and Fox-Roberts) don’t give us a one-dimensional monster in the form of Ralph. Neither is the mother just a mouthpiece for moral indignation. Director Jeni Draper keeps us focussed throughout what is largely a succession of monologues interspersed with a few scenes in which the characters interact. Jo Paul’s set is minimalistic but versatile: one ingenious item of scenery serves as a table, a settee, a coffin and so on, allowing the action to move seamlessly from scene to scene.
An exploration of the darker side of human experience, Frozen is a gripping and absorbing piece of theatre, distressingly still relevant. I look forward to seeing fingersmiths tackle their next piece – something comedic perhaps. Please.