Writer: Emma Donoghue
Music and Lyrics: Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph
Director: Cora Bissett
Reviewer: Sarah Hoover
Jack (Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans) is five, and his world is simple. In fact, it’s not a world, it’s a room. The real world, when Ma’s rescue plot brings it crashing in, is huge and fast and there are no easy answers. Jack’s vision includes fleeting glimpses of the complex woman Ma (Witney White) is, and the complex world she inhabits, but the stage version of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, creatively directed by Cora Bissett, struggles to bring the novel’s complexity into a two and a half hour production.
Based on the real life long-term abductions of Elisabeth Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch, Room is a successful demonstration of imagination as a survival mechanism. Ma, the centre of Jack’s world, produces an endless stream of stories, activities, and rituals to structure the days she and Jack share in their tiny home. The objects of Room “all have names and places”, with Lamp used every evening to signal non-existent rescuers through Skylight, Bath the place to dance the laundry clean, and TV a window into an ‘imaginary’ world.
Lily Arnold’s set uses childlike scribbles and architectural lines of light to outline the play’s spaces, making insides and outsides blend into each other as the characters’ world expands. The play is lively and full of action, which means that emotional lines and moments are not always given space to breathe. This is the challenge set by the novel, and one which Donoghue and Bisset meet by separating Jack and Big Jack (his physical and vocal stream-of-consciousness, performed with delightfully playful physicality by Fela Lufadeju), and by portraying the strongest emotions of Jack and Ma in song. In the first act Ma holds it all together, except for her “gone” days, like the one after her captor and serial rapist visits her. This scene, powerful in its use of choreography, revolving set and lighting to both obscure the act and make its consequences visible, is a highlight of the production. We sit huddled with Jack in Wardrobe while the devil is scrawled in line-drawn flames across the set, barely prevented from breaking in.
Both Ma and Big Jack break into song to process such intensely emotional moments. While musical styles which range from bluegrass to Broadway-style belting can cloud the emotional content of the piece, between White’s gorgeously full sound and Lufadeju’s raw transparency the voices alone carry the poetry of lyrics like “all of my bones are reaching out, but I can take it”. The drop in narrative immersion offers audiences a distancing from these heavily charged scenes, but also disrupts the pacing so that thematically important lines can be lost under the music.
Room picks up many themes: resilience, intimacy between mother and son, men expressing ownership of women as ‘responsibility’, race and adoption, globalization and the increasing pace of 21st century life. But because we see it through a child’s eyes none of these themes is deeply explored. Instead we are left with questions for which we glimpse tantalizing answers, such as those around Ma’s inner life and her struggle to carve out her own self-perception separate from Jack, her parents and her experience as a captive. As Peggy Phelan notes, the absence of a presence is a presence itself. In a show featuring the talents of so many talented women, perhaps it is appropriate that it is the child’s perception- and imagination- which allows us to see Ma’s attempts to simplify the deeply complex woman she is in order to save herself and her child. In its final scenes, the play offers something more and less than closure. As the pair revisit Room, it focuses on the future in which Ma and Jack will try everything once – everything in the big, wide world.
Runs until 22 July 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander