Theatre review: Adrian Pang turns in heart-stopping performance as paedophile in Frozen

Actor Adrian Pang in a scene from Frozen. -- PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN
Actor Adrian Pang in a scene from Frozen. -- PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

Frozen (Advisory 16)

Pangdemonium

Esplanade Theatre Studio/Saturday

He could have been casually describing a regular day at work. Orderliness. A centre of operations. Being prepared. But then a little girl skips along and pauses, framed in a doorway in a shaft of sun. He turns to look at her, and in an instant we know that she is the "work", she is the fulcrum on which his life pivots.

Of all the crimes, to be a paedophile and a murderer is likely to clock you in at the bottom rung of all hardened criminals, the lowest of the low. There is nothing that quite makes the bile bubble up more than someone who preys on the helpless and violates them in the most unimaginable of ways.

This is the subject of Bryony Lavery's Frozen, a contemplative play about serial killers without any of the trappings of the subject - no blood-curdling screams, scenes of gore or Hitchcockian soundscapes - just three different voices speaking to you directly: Ralph (Adrian Pang), who exists on the fringes of humanity; Agnetha (Janice Koh), a psychiatrist who studies the likes of Ralph; and Nancy (Karen Tan), whose 10-year-old daughter Rhona goes on an errand and never returns, and your stomach sinks because you know her fate even as Nancy, unaware of what will happen next, lays out the context of this solo trip to grandma's to return a pair of garden shears.

In the hands of Tracie Pang, this quiet play sends up emotional flares that both briefly illuminate and cast long shadows on a difficult, prickly topic. While the play attempts to sink its teeth into a variety of issues - forgiveness, mental illness, abuse, grief and loss - it is in the shape of its characters that the play finds its deepest resonances, not the various topics it checks off its list.

The play does not make Ralph fully sympathetic, but it humanises him in the starkest of ways, thanks to Pang's absolutely heart-stopping, gut-twisting turn as one of the most monstrous of men. I am reminded that Pang is one of the most exceptional of Singaporean actors; he never overdoes his tics and twitches, but stitches them into the heart of the character, allowing us just to see a little bit over the dark, frothy edge, holding us where we are afraid to find out more.

The play grapples head on with the weight of the issues it bears and does not take the easy way out, but it also does, in a way, by refusing to take sides, sometimes feeling a little more like a pros-and-cons column than a more discursive debate - almost as if it were afraid to side with what it so tantalisingly posits: that serial killing is, indeed, a "forgivable" act - if the killer has no idea why or what he is doing; and that no one is born evil, only made that way.

In the interests of time, the characters' emotional journeys feel truncated (though no less keenly felt), which means that an emotional breakthrough on the part of Ralph, sending up emotional fireworks on a par with Good Will Hunting, feels abrupt. Psychiatrist Agnetha also feels less like a character and more of a conduit for a lecture and a dramatic foil to Nancy and Ralph, and even so, the ideas put forth are merely the broad strokes of a potentially fascinating discussion on the psyche of serial killers, trimmed down to fit the dramatic framework.

Much of the ending hinges on Agnetha's emotional journey, and because she has little of it, it leaves less of an imprint than it could have. But Koh does the best with this material that she can (apart from some strained accent work), shaping Agnetha as both steely and brittle, a perfectly composed exterior crumbling from within.

This play was a cacophony of odd accents, Pang playing it closest with his working class British clip, Tan abandoning most of it altogether for a more comfortable register that bears hints of the Singaporean inflection (this helps by making her look more at ease in her role), and Koh with a forced American twang, complicated by when she says, according to the script, that her ancestors come from an island in the Arctic, presumably Iceland. These are minor quibbles and I feel unnecessarily nitpicky just examining them, but in a play that has such a strong, rooted sense of place, some of the slip-ups and odd juxtapositions feel jarring and force us out of the play's sense of reality.

Some of the set details threaten to overwhelm the gently fine-tuned performances of the three actors with heavy-handed symbolism - little girls' dresses suspended from the ceiling, polaroids scattered across the floor.

But the seasoned trio hold their own, pulling out some startlingly well-pitched encounters, particularly between Tan and Pang, that demonstrate a keen emotional ear for the subject. Life goes on, and the three characters, all cast adrift, must try to find a way to live in it.

Pangdemonium has proved to be able to handle their brassy blockbuster musicals as well as the delicate detailing of quiet dramas such as this. The most effective sort of confrontation is the sort that ambushes you without shouting in your face - and while Frozen could hardly be described as "enjoyable", it certainly leaves a good chill in its wake.