One of the strongest bonds on the planet is that between a mother and her child. Very little can break that under normal circumstances but what if that mother has brought her son into the world under conditions of extreme and continual duress? Welcome to Emma Donoghue’s Room which is receiving its world premiere at the Theatre Royal Stratford East this month.
Little Jack (Harrison Wilding) is five years old today. To him, this is a momentous day as he is now grown up and his inner voice, Big Jack (Fela Lufadeju) can’t wait to celebrate his birthday with Ma (Witney White). However, unlike other children, Jack and Ma will be celebrating in Room, the single space in which they live and Jack’s entire world. Seven years previously, Ma – then a 19-year-old girl – was abducted by Old Nick (Liam McKenna) who has imprisoned her in a single room ever since. Jack is the result of old Nick’s frequent visits to Ma when he brings food and rapes her, whilst Jack sleeps in a wardrobe. Jack doesn’t mind any of this though as to him, there is Ma, Room – and all its contents – and nothing else in the world. He watches television a bit but believes everything he sees is from a different planet. However, things cannot go on as they are and Ma is worried about Old Nick’s actions so comes up with a plan to get her and Jack rescued.
So, never having read the book – which I have now bought – or seen the film, I had no idea what to expect from Room. But to be honest, I’m not sure anything could have fully prepared me for the production I saw. It starts from the moment the doors open when the audience observe Room from the outside, looking down through Skylight – excellent video Design from Andrzej Goulding. As the play starts, we move down and into Room, and I have to say, the set by Lily Arnold, particularly in the first act, was amazing. The story itself is quite fascinating and takes the audience on a real rollercoaster emotionally. There is a lot of humour, mainly around the thoughts and innocence of Young Jack and there are songs. This came as a real surprise to me as Room is not a musical but is a play enhanced by songs (Music and Lyrics by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph) – most often sung by Ma as part of her own thought processes. The only issue I had with the story was that, without giving too much away, I felt Old Nick was way too trusting at the end of Act I. I’m not sure the character, as I had read him up to then, would have done what he did in the way he did.
And speaking of old Nick, congratulations to writer Emma Donoghue and actor Liam McKenna for creating such a horrible character. I have been reviewing a few years now and can honestly say in over 500 productions, I have never felt so much hatred and loathing for a character on the stage. Even writing about him now, I can feel myself getting tense. An excellently written character brought to horrible life by a superb actor. And, overall, the acting was really first rate. Whitney White, Harrison Wilding and Fela Lufadeju were brilliant and, even though Ma never interacted with Big Jack, there was a fascinating chemistry and connection between them all which really shone. There are three children who alternate the role of Little Jack between them and I’m sure they are all equally as good but I have to say from what I saw of Harrison last night, that boy has a great theatrical future ahead of him. A quick word for the other actors not mentioned so far. Stephen Casey as Grandpa was so frustrating to watch and this was, again because of the combination of writing and acting to produce a believable person on the stage. With Lucy Tregear as Grandma, the two of them made an interesting pair as a family who, having adjusted to the loss of their child – as much as they were able – find themselves in a totally unexpected situation. I do think that these characters could have done with a bit more fleshing out but, ultimately they were really interesting to observe. And finally, Janet Kumah who was perfect as the interviewer. With a mix of sugar coated sweetness covering her interview was like a horrific car crash where you want to turn your head away but just can’t.
Room is not for the faint-hearted. It covers themes and ideas that normal members of the theatre-going public should never have to face. Whilst it lost a bit of steam in the second act, I was completely absorbed in the overall story and the lives of Ma and Jack, with a real lump in my throat as we said goodbye to the two of them and sent them back out into the world outside of Room.
Review by Terry Eastham
Emma Donoghue’s compelling international bestseller Room has been adapted for the stage and has a haunting new score by Scottish songwriter Kathryn Joseph and Cora Bissett. Previously adapted by Donoghue for the screen, the film won several Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTAs. Kidnapped as a teenage girl, Ma has been locked inside a purpose built room in her captor’s garden for seven years. Her 5-year-old son, Jack, has no concept of the world outside and happily exists inside Room with the help of Ma’s games and his vivid imagination where objects like Rug, Lamp and TV are his only friends. But for Ma the time has come to escape and face their biggest challenge to date: the world outside Room.
Tue 2 May – Sat 3 Jun 2017