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James Haddrell
Credit @ Lidia Crisafulli

Interview: Underneath the Frozen Surface

Greenwich Theatre’s Artistic Director James Haddrell on Frozen and plans for 2024

Greenwich Theatre kick off their in-house 2024 season with a major revival of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen. We caught up with Greenwich’s Artistic Director James Haddrell to find out more about Frozen as well as what other plans he has for 2024.

Could you share a bit about your background and your role at Greenwich Theatre?

Yes sure. I’m Greenwich Theatre’s Artistic Director, but I started in theatre press and marketing about 20 years ago before my directing debut in 2017. As Artistic Director I direct most of the theatre’s in-house shows, and programme the visiting companies. We still have a broad mix of produced and received shows – something I’ve always believed in for Greenwich. We have an artistic capacity to stage work but also offer a crucial stage in the capital for a host of early-career and established producers from around the country. 

Congratulations on the recent lease signed with the Royal Borough of Greenwich covering the next 24 years. Tell us a little about that?

That’s huge news for us. Since the late nineties our company – Greenwich Theatre Ltd – has operated from the venue at the bottom of Crooms Hill on a tenancy at will basis, which has effectively meant no security of tenure at any point. Having finally changed that and had a long lease confirmed, we can now meaningfully plan and fundraise for the years ahead. To have that put into place at a time when arts funding is being cut all around the country is a huge testament to Greenwich’s support for the arts.

Can you give us a brief overview of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen, the opening production of Greenwich’s 2024 in-house season?

Frozen is a powerful drama about the disappearance of a 10 year old girl, the plight of her mother left not knowing her fate for years, the abductor who proves very quickly (for the audience) to be her murderer, and the New York academic flying to England to study him. The play covers a period of twenty years, with each of the characters heavily influenced by real people (though not people whose lives ever intersected in reality). The mother’s situation is drawn from that experienced by the family of one of Fred and Rosemary West’s victims, the murderer relies heavily on writing about Scottish born serial child-murderer Robert Black, and the academic draws on the career of Dr Dorothy Lewis, a psychiatrist who has spent decades interviewing, studying and testifying about some of America’s most violent serial criminals. The play has had major productions at the National Theatre, in the West End and Off-Broadway, winning awards both here and in the US.

What makes this the right time for a revival of Frozen and why did you want to bring this to Greenwich?

For me personally, I’ve loved the play for years but I’ve only relatively recently become a parent, and as a result the potency of the story has increased exponentially. It’s a cliché to say that the loss of a child is every parent’s nightmare, but clichés become clichés because they’re true. I guess that means it’s the right time for me to work on the show, but in a wider sense the questions it raises never go away – whether evil exists, appropriate levels of punishment or rehabilitation in the justice system, the dominance of nature or nurture – and with the ever increasing opportunities for abuse and exploitation offered by the internet and social media, society’s duty of care towards its children has never been more relevant. 

I also think that the theatre industry is still recovering from the impact of the pandemic, and that gives us two ways to go when programming – to focus on big, bold comedies or musicals, unashamed crowd-pleasers, or to try to revive theatre’s power to challenge its audience. In the longer term, to place our industry back at the top of its game and celebrate its power not merely to offer escapism from the world but to change the way the world thinks, for me we have to relish any opportunity to do the latter. 

Frozen Cast Greenwich Theatre

Tell us a bit about your cast and what do they each bring to the stage?

I’m lucky enough to have been able to bring together an astonishing cast. 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 has become a regular collaborator for me. 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 Ridleys Vincent River. Her role in Frozen is not an easy one, but we have developed a level of trust over the years and as a result we’re able to really delve into the toughest aspects of grief and anger in rehearsals. Then we have Indra Ové, a strong, analytical performer who has appeared in everything from Interview with the Vampire to Sex Education. Her character Agnetha 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 blend of fierce intelligence and determination, which Indra absolutely has. Finally James Bradshaw completes the cast. 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 comfort zone, and James’ performance is going to be one to remember.

You’ve described Frozen as a challenging play, how are you and the cast approaching this challenge?

We have all already read around the themes of the play and the well publicised sources that Bryony used in writing it, to ensure that we have the strongest possible grasp on the debate that the play presents – and it’s a tough one. It challenges some of our most instinctive views about justice and morality. Some of the material we’ve looked at is hard to stomach, and some has had a very emotional effect, but it has left us better equipped to present the spectrum of views encapsulated by the play, in the actions and the opinions of our three very different characters.

You are about a week into rehearsals now. How is it going so far, and can you give us an idea what happens in those first few days together in a room on a new project?

I love the start of rehearsals. In practical terms that usually means the full company – actors, creative team and members of the theatre staff – sit round and the cast reads the play, to give everyone a glimpse of how the production will feel like with this particular cast. Then the designer shows everyone a model of the set – and Alex Millidge has come up with something very special for this production, showing just how much the lives of Nancy and Ralph remain intertwined over the years that follow the murder. There’s a conversation about lighting and sound design, and we have a great team there too, and then we start to rehearse in earnest – which for me means putting the structure of the production together, blocking each scene and building the jigsaw, and then moving on to more detailed interrogation of the script and the characters.

Looking forward to the rest of the year, Greenwich Theatre continues its tradition of offering year-round programming for young audiences, with Beauty and the Beast set for August, followed by the highly anticipated first major revival of Jez Butterworth’s The River in October. Could you give us an insight into how a season’s programming comes together?

It is always a major juggling act, as no two productions have the same period of development, the same touring schedule or the same financial structure. I have been pursuing the rights for both The River and Frozen for some years, but never thought they would land in the same year. Still, there are some consistent points in our year – we always present a family show in the summer (and the script for Beauty and the Beast is being written now) and a big pantomime, we aim to produce at least two strong modern dramas across the year, and we’d always hope to present work by, and to support, a range of early career artists around that.

Programming always has a very fluid timeline at Greenwich too. Some programmers lock in their year well ahead of time, but for me there are always opportunities to confirm something new at the last minute which could change the feeling of a whole season. For example, we have just confirmed an evening with Steven Berkoff in May, a run of dates for a new production of Orwell’s Animal Farm which will come to Greenwich in June, and a new take on Madame Bovary for July – and new ideas and new events are being booked in the every day…

Out thanks to James for taking the time out of rehearsals to chat with us.

Frozen plays at Greenwich Theatre 26 April until 19 May. Further information and tickets can be found here. For more information on Greenwich Theatre and upcoming shows visit their website here.

About Dave B

Originally from Dublin but having moved around a lot, Dave moved to London, for a second time, in 2018. He works for a charity in the Health and Social Care sector. He has a particular interest in plays with an Irish or New Zealand theme/connection - one of these is easier to find in London than the other! Dave made his (somewhat unwilling) stage debut via audience participation on the day before Covid lockdowns began. He believes the two are unrelated but is keen to ensure no further audience participation... just to be on the safe side.