Nobody knowingly starts a relationship with someone who is emotionally abusive. So what are the tell-tale signs of such an unhealthy arrangement? Is This Thing On? charts the relationship between Joanna (Dísa Andersen) – a 17-year-old girl – and her boyfriend Jack (Joshua Stretton), who is almost ten years older.
How they became a couple is quite important – an act of matchmaking by mutual friend Alice (Julie Våpenstad Holm) who is insistent this is a ‘good thing’. All is well at first, but as Jack reveals himself to be increasingly self-centred, Joanna wonders whether beyond the sex, he truly cares for her. But while she’s fallen for him in a big way, he shows increasing signs of disdain for her unequivocal affection. What’s ‘worse’, Alice thinks he’s still a ‘top bloke’, so does the ‘problem’ lie with Joanna?
One could interpret Is This Thing On? any number of ways. Certainly the age gap between Joanna and Jack has influenced their dynamic to some degree. As someone much younger than Jack and relatively inexperienced in relationships, she isn’t certain what she’s dealing with is ‘normal’ or whether she should challenge his behaviour. It’s also obvious by Jack’s actions that he thinks of her as his ‘doll’ and ‘gets off’ on the control he has over her.
One may think that intelligent women don’t put up with this sort of nonsense, but when doubts are concerned, validation is often sought by confidantes. In the case of Alice who brought them together, Joanna trusts her opinion over her own doubts and feelings. Certainly there is scope to develop the play further and explore why Alice thinks and behaves the way she does.
Of course not every woman who is in an abusive relationship is very young or distrusts her own feelings to such a degree, but then this a classic sign of ‘gaslighting’. Through Andersen’s script and Holm’s choreography, we see a young woman trying to assert ownership of her identity and feelings, but forever kept off-kilter by those around her.
At a time when social media encourages ‘likes’ from everyone and that ‘baes’ are all-important, it takes a brave and insightful person to realise not everybody has our best interests at heart. As their first play for Frigg Theatre, Andersen and Holm have created a succinct and pertinent show that addresses the emotional mindfield within 21st century living. On the basis of Is This Thing On?, one can only assume that future projects will also exhibit emotionally-complex narratives without the recourse for easy answers.
© Michael Davis 2018
Is This Thing On? runs at Old Red Lion Theatre as part of a female-led double bill with Under The Skin until 31st March.