Room tells the story of Ma and her little boy Jack as they go about their daily lives within the confines of a small, square room. They play, exercise, read, and sometimes watch television. Ma and Jack also scream at the skylight on weekdays and write shopping lists for a mysterious man. Shortly down the line, we discover that Ma was kidnapped seven years ago by ‘Old Nick’ and has been held captive in his shed ever since; alone until having Jack – the result of persistent sexual assault.
Room’s journey began nearly a decade ago when writer Emma Donoghue became inspired to tell the story of a kidnap victim. Mostly influenced by having kids, she was also struck by the notorious 2008 Fritzl case, which saw nightmarish details emerge of a father’s imprisonment and sexual abuse of his daughter.
But rather than focus on an all too aware adult perspective, Room is beautifully narrated by a five-year-old boy. After its exceptional success as a book, Donoghue wrote the screenplay for the 2015 film, which was also a monumental hit, garnering her an Oscar nomination and star, Brie Larson, a well-deserved win. As if that wasn’t quite enough, the story has now been written for another medium (again by Donoghue) and finds its home at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.
One can only imagine the hugely challenging task of working on a single project this long and to essentially create it afresh three times. But as I found out when I recently interviewed Donoghue about the play, each version of Room has come very naturally. Needless to say, the expectations are vast. So what’s it like?
One of the most striking elements here is the amount of thought and effort given to bringing Jack’s voice to life. The book’s narrative is exceptionally detailed and genuine, giving the otherwise horrifying story a light and hope only the innocent consciousness of a child can convey. In this performance, Jack is played by Harrison Wilding (the role is shared with two other actors) and whilst he provides a necessary and sweet boisterousness, it is the addition of a ‘Big Jack’ (Fela Lufadeju) that makes it so luminescent. Creating another dimension to such a key role could have been distracting and ultimately, disastrous but instead, adds increased amounts of humour and hope. Lufadeju is just sublime as he throws anecdotes at the audience with excellent comic timing. Many would have read the book and/or seen the film, but for those that perhaps haven’t, there’s always something surreal and hilarious about the weird things kids say.
Lily Arnold’s set is an interesting one. Whilst the staging of Room is stifling and we are aware of its lack of size, especially due to the context of the story, it is striking how much more claustrophic and cold the open and ‘big’ world seems later on. Arnold keeps the set busy and though it isn’t really home, to Jack, it is. His feeling of alienation is captured perfectly in how she has reversed our view as adult voyeurs. The set’s versatility too as it spins round to show Jack in Wardrobe, ensures the story is (mostly) always his.
Though not classed as a musical per se, Room includes music written by Director, Cora Bissett, and Kathryn Joseph. Performed with dedication and power, the songs add to the experience and feelings of Ma especially. Rather than show her numb and unfeeling to the atrocities she has experienced, the audience are allowed into her severely fragmented but conversely strong, emotional state.
As Ma, Witney White pours everything she has into these songs. Hers is a robust character; tormented by what she has gone through but deeply thoughtful and protective over her son. Whilst the highly emotional scenes are good, White’s strength is the truth she quietly conveys – especially with Wilding. She is a mother here, patient and proud of her (miracle) child.
Aesthetically, Room does what it sets out to do. Emotionally too, it smacks you right in the chest with a bulldozer. Lufadeju and White’s performances stand-out in an overall, talented cast. Only Liam McKenna’s Old Nick is, though disturbing, not nearly as strong. This is a very beautiful, very well crafted stage production that isn’t just a version of Room, but rather an entirely new experience with the ever brilliant Jack.
Room is playing the Theatre Royal Stratford East until June 3.