Emma Donoghue hit literary gold with Room, her story of a young mother and her son held captive for years by a cruel tormentor. The details of all-too-real and all-too-gruesome events that inspired Donoghue’s work, such as the Josef Fritzl case, hardly bear thinking about.
But Donoghue’s work, by focusing on the imagination of a child whose world is circumscribed by four walls, and the effects of that environment on a young mind’s development, worldview and language, allowed her a way to clear space for a compellingly human and psychologically interesting work.
Room has since been made into a successful film and, now, comes to the Abbey via the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in Donoghue’s own adaptation, directed by Cora Bissett.
Here, Jack’s perspective is achieved by having two actors play him. One is a youngster, an accomplished Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans; the other, Fela Lufadeju, is fully grown, and charged not with giving Jack voice from the future, but with delivering the technically more demanding inner thoughts of the young boy. The device might not be perfect, but it works well in Lufadeju’s likeable performance.
Another addition is more unexpected: several songs by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph. They make no attempt to broach the horror and pain of the situation depicted, but this is just as well. They work by being, despite their occasional banality, musical expressions of the indomitable human spirit.
The ‘room’ itself, in Lily Arnold’s design, combines the realism of the furniture and layout with projected child’s drawings, animation and rotation to allow the nightmarishness mingle with the merely grim. It is a very effective setting as Jack and Ma (Witney White) fill their time with rituals and routines, regularly interrupted by the visitations from Old Nick (Liam McKenna).
After Ma and Jack return to the wider world via a preposterous escape plot, the tension dissipates. The confusion of Jack’s new world is well observed, but the conflict between Ma and her own parents feels perfunctory as the play tries to do too much.
That said, this is an affecting work, one that will be warmly received by audiences.
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