Caro Meets Theatre Interview

James Haddrell: Frozen

By | Published on Friday 19 April 2024

Coming up at Greenwich Theatre shortly is a new staging of Bryony Lavery’s acclaimed play ‘Frozen’, which – as you may know – focuses on the lives and experiences of those connected with the abduction and murder of a child. 

It’s a really promising production, helmed by Greenwich Theatre AD James Haddrell and starring an excellent trio of performers – Kerrie Taylor, Indra Ové and James Bradshaw. 

I spoke to James Haddrell to find out more about the play and the production, as well as what to expect from him and Greenwich Theatre coming up. 

CM: I feel as though ‘Frozen’ is probably one of Bryony Lavery’s best known works, so I expect at least some of our readers will know of it, but can you tell us a bit about the narrative of the play? Who is it about and what happens?
JH: The play follows three people whose lives should never have intersected but who are brought together by a horrendous act.

Ralph is a serial child murderer who one day, almost on a whim, abducts the ten year old Rhona. Nancy is Rhona’s mother, left not knowing the fate of her daughter for years. Agnetha is the New York academic studying serial killers who travels to London to study Ralph.

Starting as a series of monologues, the play gradually sees these three people’s lives intertwine, as each is forced to confront their own feelings and to challenge their understanding of the world.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JH: The biggest debate in the play is the nature/nurture question – are killers born or made?

A huge amount of very accessible research went into the writing of this play, and Agnetha is based on US psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, a formidable intellect who has interviewed some of the most terrifying killers on death row in the course of her work.

Her thesis, picked up in the play by Agnetha, is around the distinction between an act of violence as a sin – an act that is knowingly committed and is fundamentally wrong – or a symptom – something that happens as a result of illness or damage.

I think audiences are going to be surprised by how much their feelings are challenged over the course of the play.

CM: What made you want to stage this particular play and why now?
JH: I’ve known about this play for years, and aspired to producing or directing it throughout that time, but I’ve only relatively recently become a parent. In that shift the power of the story has dramatically increased.

I know that horrendous feeling you get when, for ten seconds in the supermarket, you can’t see your child, so I can only imagine what twenty years of that would feel like.

As my daughters grow up, with school on the horizon and all the life changes that brings, I’m also more and more aware of the huge duty of care that society has towards its children. I guess all of that means now is the time for me to work on this play.

I also think that theatre can do one of two things – it can offer an escape from a difficult world or it can help to explain that world.

After the pandemic the most common approach for producers was to offer escape but it’s time we got back to interrogating the world around us, asking the hard questions in the way that only the arts can do, and ‘Frozen’ epitomises that.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your approach to directing it?
JH: I was keen to explore the shift from the isolation in which our three characters start the play, gradually finding physical connections as time goes on. Our designer Alex Millidge has come up with a fantastic revolving set which shows how the murder forces these three people to somehow orbit one another, inextricably connected even before they meet.

In terms of the content, we have all read extensively around the play and its themes. As well as looking at work by Dorothy Lewis – who famously visited Ted Bundy the day before he was executed and records the fact that she was the last person to kiss him – we’ve also looked at Scottish serial child killer Robert Black, who offered the inspiration for Ralph, and at Fred and Rosemary West’s victim Lucy Partington and her bereaved family.

That has given us a unique insight not only into the events of the play but into the thoughts and feelings of people in these situations.

To understand what it feels like to sit in close confinement with a killer, to offer the world a scientific theory that can rock everyone’s fundamental sense of morality, to lose someone so close to you but spend years not knowing their fate, and even to be driven to commit acts like this – all of that has contributed hugely to presenting three utterly believable characters.

Finally, we’ve had to find ways to present a story that spans twenty years, so there has been a lot of vocal and physical work to do in the rehearsal room, something that I always enjoy, identifying how actors naturally move, the rhythms and intonations in the way they speak, and breaking those down to rebuild as someone else.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
JH: We have a fantastic cast – which is just what a play of this nature needs. You need actors with a wealth of both performance experience and life experience, and actors brave enough to challenge the way they think and feel about some of the biggest structures that define our society. 

Kerrie Taylor plays Nancy, the grieving mother, and whilst she’ll be best known for long stints in ‘Hollyoaks’ or ‘Where The Heart Is’, she and I have become regular collaborators.

Kerrie appeared in our Caryl Churchill collection – our first show out of the pandemic – as well as our Pinter double-bill, and most recently gave an award-nominated performance in our production of Philip Ridley’s ‘Vincent River’.

Then Indra Ové plays Agnetha – she is a strong, analytical performer who has appeared in everything from ‘Jerusalem’ to ‘Sex Education’.

Her character is a trail-blazer, as Dorothy Lewis was, interviewing some of the most dangerous criminals in captivity and battling the establishment in making her theories public, so the character needs a fierce intelligence, but she is also processing her own grief, so Indra has to balance intellect with barely controlled emotion, a challenge she is rising to with astonishing results. 

Finally James Bradshaw plays Ralph. Best known recently for the Inspector Morse prequel ‘Endeavour’, in which he plays the series regular Dr DeBryn, this is something of a departure for James.

He’s a wonderfully open actor who radiates decency and integrity, and his casting tends to reflect that, so to take on the role of this irredeemable child murderer is a huge challenge – but I always love taking actors well beyond their predictable casting, and James’ performance is going to be one to remember.

CM: Can we talk about you now? What drew you to a career in the arts and how did it all begin?
JH: I studied English Literature and then Early Modern European Culture at university, and the History Of Art after that, so I always knew I wanted to work somewhere in this arena.

More than anything, I have always been drawn to storytelling and the power that exists in the various ways you can tell a story, from reading to a child at home, to watching a Hollywood blockbuster, to unpicking a surreal painting.

I started my career in cinema marketing and programming before moving to theatre – I worked as marketing manager at the now closed Warehouse Theatre in Croydon before moving to Greenwich Theatre and working my way up through the company.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
JH: My directing debut was a huge moment for me. I didn’t train as a director but I’ve spent decades watching several shows a week, and have supported countless emerging theatremakers in the rehearsal room and as a dramaturg, so I felt I was ready.

I worked with CultureClash Theatre Company to revive John Retallack’s ‘Hannah And Hanna’, a story of migration and racism set in Margate amidst an influx of Kosovan refugees. We took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe and then brought it back to London, and it will always be one of my highlights.

Since then every show I’ve directed has had a special place for me, but I think ‘Bad Nights And Odd Days’, a collection of short plays by Caryl Churchill, stands out.

It marked Greenwich’s return to producing after the pandemic, presented when audiences were still socially distanced, and despite all of the challenges we secured the rights – and the title for the collection – from Caryl.

Paul McGann led the cast, and I think bringing that show to the stage really felt like bringing theatre back in general – for me it meant that as a venue we’d survived and retained the strength and determination to present bold, challenging work.

In terms of running the venue, one of the major highlights would have to be securing our long lease, which happened earlier this year.

Before that, for 25 years, our company – Greenwich Theatre Ltd – has operated on a tenancy at will basis, which means we had no security and no guarantee of a long term home.

We have now signed a lease which guarantees our home until 2048, which means we can meaningfully plan and fundraise for the future. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your AD work at Greenwich Theatre and what it involves?
JH: I love leading Greenwich Theatre – I’ve been here a long time, but every year seems to bring a new exciting opportunity.

I direct most of our in-house work but also programme the visiting shows, so it’s my job to find a consistent identity for the venue’s programme from the shows that happen to be touring at any particular moment.

That’s incredibly difficult, but I think we’ve successfully carved out a role as a major supporter of emerging theatre makers, and a champion of family theatre.

CM: What plans do you have for the future, personally and for Greenwich Theatre?
JH: For the theatre, we have an exciting programme of work coming up this year, from an in-house production of Jez Butterworth’s ‘The River’ – which will see Paul McGann back on our stage – to visiting productions of ‘Animal Farm’ by Creation Theatre and a series of small experimental events in the studio.

With the lease in place, we are also now putting together a five year plan which will see even greater ambition in our in-house work, and even more support for emerging artists.  

Personally, alongside my work for the theatre I also work with Modus Arts, an exciting emerging sonic arts company which secured Arts Council NPO status last year.

One of our latest activities is an oral history project across Scotland, uncovering cassettes sent to and from Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s in place of letters, many recorded in an oral language that has no written equivalent. Those are being documented and the findings will be turned into a series of exhibitions in major galleries in Scotland later this year.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JH: Our next in-house production is very different – an all-new actor-musician version of ‘Beauty And The Beast’ with a cast including Louise Cielecki – one of our panto regulars – and Tony Mooney – from ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Hollyoaks’.

That’s becoming a regular slot for us, a big musical family show for the summer. I’m looking forward to playing with a group of actor-musicians – it offers a whole new language of storytelling, with ever-present instruments standing in for other objects and even speaking for the characters.

But first, I need to complete the journey with ‘Frozen’…

‘Frozen’ is on at Greenwich Theatre from 26 Apr-19 May, for more info and to book head to the venue website here.

LINKS: | | 

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli