Room – Abbey Theatre – Review by Patrick Viale
Until July 22nd
Following the hugely successful film version of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel, Room, which won an Oscar for best actress for Brie Larson in the role of Ma, the story has now been adapted for stage by Donoghue and will run in the Abbey Theatre until the 22nd of July. Describing it as a play with music, she has remained faithful to the original plot but has introduced an additional character into this stage version, a teenage alter ego of young Jack, the narrator of the novel.
As the title suggests, the action takes place mainly in a room where Ma has been a prisoner for the past seven years. Kidnapped as a teenager, she is kept in a soundproofed garden shed where she is regularly assaulted and raped by her captor, known only as Old Nick. She gave birth to a son, Jack, now five, and her sole aim in life is to keep him safe and give him as normal a life as possible in these unnatural surroundings.
For Jack, Room is the whole world. While “sky” is real because he can see it through the skylight in the shed, “trees” and “ice cream” are as unreal as the cartoon characters he sees on the television which Ma allows him to watch for an hour each day because any more will “rot his brain”. Each morning he greets the wall, plant and table that form his world and each day is spent following the same ritual of cleaning, story telling and physical exercise. At night Jack is put to bed in a wardrobe while Ma awaits the arrival of Old Nick whom Jack has never seen. When Old Nick’s treatment of them becomes more erratic, Ma realises that, no matter what the risks, she must try to help her son to escape from the room.
In this production, before the play begins, we are presented with a bird’s eye view of the room where we watch as, day after day, Ma and Jack repeat the same actions over and over in their confined space. This sense of claustrophobia is intensified by Lily Arnold’s impressive set as the two negotiate the tiny space between table, bed and bath as Ma tries to educate and entertain her young son. The video projections at the start of the play give us an insight into Jack’s world view and it is a pity more use wasn’t made of them later. Instead we learn of young Jack’s reactions through the interjections and songs of Big Jack, a more hackneyed and less interesting theatrical device.
As Ma, Witney White is poignant and believable as the mother who will sacrifice anything to protect her child and Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans gives a persuasive performance as the young Jack. In fact there are no weak performances in the play. However it lacks a sense of tension. Even readers familiar with the book, who know how the story develops, will have experienced a strong sense of apprehension in the scenes of the movie when Ma is planning Jack’s escape and the sequences that follow. Here that is totally lacking and people unfamiliar with the book must struggle to understand at times what is happening on stage. This is not helped by the bland musical numbers which dissipate rather than enhance the atmosphere, all the more so because it is not always easy to hear the lyrics.
Donoghue’s novel had a visceral and distressing quality that was captured in Lenny Abrahamson’s film. It does not transfer well to the stage in this production. Here we have a more bland version of the same story. It is visually impressive, the acting is good but it is hard to be truly engaged with the characters or moved by what should be a shocking but intriguing tale of loss and redemption.
Stephen Casey – Grandpa/Doctor
Darmani Eboji – Little Jack
Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans – Little Jack
Janet Kumah – Policewoman/Interviewer
Fela Lufadeju – Big Jack
Liam McKenna – Old Nick
Lucy Tregear – Grandma
Witney White – Ma
Harrison Wilding – Little Jack
Emma Donoghue – Written and adapted for the stage by
Cora Bissett – Music and lyrics by
Kathryn Joseph – Music and Lyrics by
Cora Bissett – Director
Lily Arnold – Designer
Gavin Whitworth – Musical Director
Alexandra Faye Braithwaite – Sound Designer
David Cauchi – Puppet Designer
Andrzej Goulding – Video Projection Designer