Frigg Theatre is a Nordic company with an explicitly feminist focus, which aims to create original work “about subjects that are generally considered taboo”. Domestic violence, the theme of Is This Thing On? at the Old Red Lion Theatre, is something that can still be impossible to talk about, to get others to take seriously and to seek help for. However, it’s far from an uncommon subject in terms of theatre, and Is This Thing On? struggles to make a real impression where other plays have.
Written and acted by Disa Anderson, we follow the relationship between Joanna and Jack (Joshua Stretton) which is all wrong from the outset. He’s 26, she’s 17. Her friend, Alice (Julie Vaapenstad Holm), is approving. He plays bass, he has a tattoo, he drinks heavily. Both Alice and Jack pressure Joanna into drinking, into presenting herself as sexy and mature for him, and write off his increasing violence towards her. Throughout, the narrative of the relationship is interspersed with Joanna’s own reflection on the abuse she endured at the time and the way it continues to affect her.
The writing is the most apparent problem here: the dialogue fails to hold attention and comes across as stilted, and Joanna’s addresses to us rely heavily on cliché. The structure isn’t strong or regular enough to work up any kind of rhythm, and the themes of female adolescent friendship and changing yourself to appeal to your partner aren’t explored in any truly insightful or penetrating way. Jack calls Joanna a slut, and she wonders (rightly) “How can a 17-year-old girl be a slut?” But the more urgent – and more feminist – implication, that ‘slut’ is an awful and nonsensical thing to call anyone, is not picked up. In a more effective piece, it wouldn’t need to be, but here it’s yet another thing not fully explored, like Alice’s complicity in her friend’s abuse, and own eventual victimhood.
Halfway through, Jack and Alice also offer their opinions on the mess of this relationship, but it doesn’t add anything to our understanding of the toxic situation or the characters, and perhaps being shown through their performances or the writing apart from these asides would have been more effective. Very small attempts at humour, for the most part, fall flat, and the acting never quite connects.
The action drowns in a space which isn’t large to begin with, as the abstract movement which shows the relationship doesn’t absorb you, much like the text. The violence is never graphic or gratuitous, which is a smart choice as it doesn’t need to be, but the lifting and twisting of the characters around each other is never something interesting or new. Is This Thing On? is overwhelmingly static: the bar stools are moved forward, then back. They sit. The couple lie on the floor. Joanna stands and talks to us. Strange choices have been made with regards to costume and sound design (why is Ella Fitzgerald playing in this jazz bar they visit? Have they found a bar in which she is somehow performing live, or are they at an establishment which just plays her over the speakers but still calls itself a jazz bar?) which indicates a serious lack of detail.
Anderson is right: domestic violence is a societal issue that desperately needs to be discussed, and making work around it is important. Is This Thing On? unfortunately doesn’t add any significant substance to the conversation. Perhaps with more development it might.
Is This Thing On? played at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 31 March
Photo: Frigg Theatre