Content warning: this review contains mention of sexual assault.
It’s almost incredible.
Room has it all — tension, heart, whimsy, talent. Exquisite performances intertwined with dazzling set and projection design (well, at least for the first half). An astonishing child actor and his equally gripping onstage mum. A gut-punch story in a jaw-drop theatre space, the Princess of Wales on King, in which I’d previously only seen the intimate audio drama Blindness last year — how luxurious it was to be on the audience side of things this time.
No one can dismiss that Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (she’s written the playscript, too), is a harrowing, powerful story: a woman, known simply as Ma, and her young son Jack have been imprisoned for seven years in a shed, equipped only with the bare necessities for survival. Their captor, a monstrous rapist and Jack’s biological father, visits often, bringing supplies and assaulting Ma while Jack hides in a wardrobe. This is a desolate place, a hell of Fritzl proportions.
But to Jack, it isn’t. To Jack, the room (or simply ‘Room,’ as he and Ma call it) is not just home, but the entire world. It’s not prison or even jail — it’s everything, a life in miniature. Room has Egg Snake (fashioned from used eggshells), and Labyrinth (a castle of toilet paper tubes), and TV. TV’s a big one — in the world according to Jack, imaginary things, cars and buses and cats and girls and ice cream, live only in TV. They’re not in Room, and thus, they’re not real.
We realize early on that this arrangement cannot go on forever — that Ma’s at the last of a million breaking points. It’s time to escape.
That’s act one.
In truth, you could end Room at this point and feel like you’d seen a complete story unfurl — you’d have witnessed glorious performances, a spinning and splashy set design (by Lily Arnold), a true masterclass in what one can accomplish onstage with seemingly endless resources, including a skillful director in Cora Bissett and a world-class design team. Andrzej Goulding’s act one projections alone are worth the price of entry.
But there’s a second act.
Room’s a curious piece. It’s not a musical, it’s a play with songs — why? Room’s scene-setting music by Gavin Whitworth is gorgeous, an underscore rife with dissonance and intrigue. But the songs, co-written by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph and appearing seemingly randomly, are less effective, and even detrimental to the story at times. Though they occasionally sear through to the emotional core of Ma and Jack, the lyrics often verge upon saccharine. Despite ample vocal talent on the Princess of Wales stage, I often found myself wishing songs would end faster. Songs are a clear dissociative device for mother and son — the creative team takes a page from the Spring Awakening playbook and prescribes lyrics when prose might be too traumatic, too heavy. In other words: when things get bad, thoughts get musical. But that only works when songs offer poetry in place of straight narration — and Room’s lyrics aren’t quite there. Alexis Gordon’s Ma, too, sings approximately ten thousand eleven o’clock numbers in the first act — they’re performed impeccably, but they become redundant quickly.
There’s also the issue of Jack. The stage version of Room has two Jacks; and for those who’ve not read the book or seen the film, it’s not immediately clear that it’s two versions of the same person, and not two separate children mothered by Ma. Young Jack’s played most nights by the wonderful Lucien Duncan-Reid, a little firecracker, a Paw Patrol veteran, and an actor with nuance and stagecraft beyond his years. Duncan-Reid, a grade four student, is simply magnetic, and when Ma disappears for much of the second act, he carries Room squarely on his four-foot shoulders.
SuperJack, on the other hand, is a more difficult task. SuperJack is… an adult version of Jack? A five-year-old Jack in an adult’s body? Brandon Michael Arrington offers an animated, compelling performance, but it’s a tricky role, which, as eventually becomes clear, represents Young Jack’s older alter ego. SuperJack narrates events as they happen using a five-year-old’s lexicon, and that choice only works for so long before growing tired. While SuperJack offers a lifeline to the actor playing Young Jack (Levi Dombokah for matinees) who is onstage for Room’s two-and-a-half-hour-plus-intermission runtime, the role often feels dramaturgically unnecessary. I’m glad Duncan-Reid and Dombokah have an onstage buddy — I’m not convinced they need one.
And then… act two. It happens, and in its happening it omits perhaps the most riveting part of the book and film: Jack’s escape. We enter the second act with (spoiler) Jack and Ma reunited within a hospital ward. Re-entry’s a difficult proposition — how does one navigate the world after seven years in a dungeon? It’s a half of the story which needs to be told, but after the visual cornucopia of act one, act two feels by comparison flat, formulaic, and long. We meet a rash of secondary characters, acted well enough and yet written, perhaps by choice on the part of Donoghue, to be no match for Ma and Jack. The projections which so delight in act one step aside for stark white walls which represent a rotating series of houses, shopping malls, and parks. Gone is the aesthetic playfulness which so tempered the horrors of Ma’s existence in the first act — in its place is emptiness. The logic of it makes sense, that loss of familiarity, but the shift is an uncomfortable and at times ineffective one.
I’ve refrained from addressing Gordon’s performance as Ma until now: she’s the beating heart of Room, breathtaking, stunning. Ma is an emotionally, physically, and vocally demanding role, and Gordon absolutely nails it. Ma’s not written perfectly — as already noted, those songs wear out their welcome quickly — but Gordon is a tour de force. Her chemistry with Duncan-Reid feels not only real but truly profound — the onstage mother-son duo is a once-in-a-lifetime shared performance, one of calibre and tenderness. Gordon, too, navigates physical moments with her captor (played well but, for obvious reasons, unsympathetically by Ashley Wright) deftly and with grace — intimacy coordinator Siobhan Richardson has staged graphic scenes of rape and assault like the industry legend that she is. These moments are unflinching and yet so smartly choreographed: while the audience bears witness to Ma’s most vulnerable moments, the Jacks, both Young and Super, never have to.
So… Room. It’s a tough sell, a full-length not-musical about imprisonment and trauma. The performances are wonderful, and the act one set and projections are, too. Those things alone make Room a bracing, transformative theatre-going experience. Does Room survive its musical and dramaturgical limitations? Maybe, maybe not: twenty-four hours and a viewing of the exquisite 2015 Room film later, I’m unsure. The missing escape scene really is a loss.
But despite the occasional, fleeting dip into cloying sentimentality, Room will, for better or worse, make you feel big, authentic feelings: I cried more than once, to be sure. And that, there, is the power of live theatre, and the joy of being back in a Mirvish space.
Room runs at the Princess of Wales Theatre through May 8. Tickets are available here.