Under My Thumb

Much can be understood by words that aren't spoken. Indeed many unspoken words make up the rules that form what is said to be acceptable societal behaviour. The prevalence of the unspoken is key in CultureClash Theatre's Under My Thumb – directed by Artistic Director James Haddrell in the first play in Greenwich Theatre's new studio space – and also in the power of the space itself; set in a world where women only survive by 'being quiet' and adhering to men's rules, in a venue where stillness is much more powerful than noise. Its strength is in the implicit - though the challenge is how to maintain an energy and understanding when so much important is unsaid.

A great inaugural production at a new space that is completely right for Greenwich Theatre

In a cellar-like possible prison, where the constant external dripping and humming of pipes and occasional thumping from above is the only allusion to any outside world, five female 'prisoners' seem to be creating their own society (as is often seen in such worlds of the 'excluded'). Roles are carved out in terms of hierarchy and companionship – with recognisable signifiers of rolling up sleeves and puffing out chests, physically fighting for power, and back massages a-plenty. But when a new arrival appears and the reasons for the women being there are hinted at (shown through filmed interviews – with whom we aren't quite sure) without ever being fully told, it becomes a little clearer that their struggles aren't with each other but with how they come together against their common enemy 'upstairs'.

It takes a while to understand what this commonality actually is and it's to the credit of the writer Cassiah Joski-Jethi that there is never a big reveal as such. The premise though is that if women take 'responsibility' for what society thinks they have made happen to themselves (rather than blame others who have hurt them) then they are 'allowed' to return to that society. By distancing us from the actual reasons for their encapture - through the videos and by using the new woman as the catalyst to destroy the subculture they have built and so break the solidarity they have against the common enemy - we are never quite sure with whom we should side or what the 'truth' is. For me the power of the play lies in not telling us this (though the intentions are clear from reading the programme) and it's somewhat better for how it challenges one's own beliefs in choosing whose side you are on.

Of course there are challenges in a play and a space that work best when they make you think and that have brevity in the silence. It's difficult to maintain an energy when the most powerful moments are so small – Jessica Aquilina as the longest term 'inmate' Nev, hardly moves or says anything but is mesmerising in her portrayal of both vulnerability and toughness, and Sian Eleanor Green is so small in her movements as the childlike, love-needing Rosaline, that you have to watch her in case she actually shatters in front of your eyes. But when the drama - and volume - does increase, we are too close to accept things like eye-rolling and hair twiddling as anything other than 'actor's business' and any raised voices and shouted arguments vibrate against acoustics that aren't yet quite settled.

It's a difficult balance to get right but they're at a great starting place and with a very interesting play that is all the better for not tying everything up nicely in the end. There are glimpses of great theatrical moments - an intimate conversation between confused Lily (Alice De-Warrenne) and new entry Ree (Serin Ibrahim) feels like they have forgotten an audience is there and draws us in to listen intently as pins may drop; the formerly quiet Nev's delivery of "I was 6" (when asked what happened to her) is possibly the most powerfully delivered three words spoken. But there is also too much unnecessary shouting for 'Top Dog' Hattie (Charlotte Green) and pregnant Sam (Cassandra Hercules) who could both portray their anger and anguish as effectively with more control.

Overall this is a great inaugural production at a new space that is completely right for Greenwich Theatre to continue its policy of encouraging new writing and new performances. And CultureClash – and Joski-Jethi in particular - are worth watching for how they bring new thinking and new challenges to the theatre. It's an exciting time for this venue and I hope Haddrell's passion for this sort of dynamic continues to fly and bring in new tales, new styles and new (and exciting) risks to Greenwich.

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The Blurb

In a dystopian present, five women are imprisoned for crimes against society. Brought together by a common enemy and facing indefinite incarceration, the one dignity remaining to them is their continuing belief in their own innocence.

The arrival of yet another prisoner seems no surprise, just another woman brought down by the world outside, but is she all that she seems?

Cassiah Joski-Jethi's UNDER MY THUMB was shortlisted for the inaugural RED Women's Theatre Awards at Greenwich Theatre in 2016, and has been selected as the opening production for our new studio space. The production sees the return of CultureClash Theatre to Greenwich, last seen with the award-winning Hannah And Hanna in 2015. The company plan to progress to a full tour of UNDER MY THUMB in 2017 - so the performers will be meeting audiences and gathering feedback after the show. This is your chance to influence the further development of a script which has already been shortlisted for a national playwriting award.

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