Stage Door Review
Sunday, March 20, 2022
by Emma Donoghue, directed by Cora Bissett
Grand Theatre, Covent Garden Productions & Mirvish Productions, Grand Theatre, London
March 11-19, 2022;
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
April 7-May 8, 2022
“Mind over matter”
On March 13, 2020, the Grand Theatre had already presented three previews of the world premiere of Emma Donoghue’s Room when it was informed on what would have been its opening night that all theatres had to close because of the advent of Covid-19. Two years later, the Grand finally gave the play its North American premiere on March 11. It was well worth the long wait and, strangely enough, the pandemic has given the story a greater resonance.
Donoghue, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, but who has lived in London, Ontario, since 1998, published her bestselling and multi-award-winning novel Room in 2010. In 2015 she wrote the screenplay for the multi-award-winning film version of the novel directed in Canada by Irishman Lenny Abrahamson. In 2017 Donoghue wrote the stage version of the novel that received its world premiere in London, England, in 2017.
Though the details vary between the novel and its two adaptations, the general plot remains the same. The woman named Ma was kidnapped when she was 19 by a man she calls Old Nick, who has held her captive in a secured single-room shed on his property for seven years. Nick provides her with whatever groceries or drugs Ma needs but he also rapes her almost every other night. These assaults have resulted in two pregnancies. The first was a daughter who died at birth. The second was Jack, who when we first meet him, is about to turn five.
The most fascinating aspect of this disturbing story is that Jack has never known any other word than the room where he and Ma live. They both refer to their room simply as Room. All the things that Jack sees on television – like dogs, mountains, lakes or other people – he is led to believe are not real, or “only TV”, as he says. When Jack turns five, Ma feels she can finally tell him the truth of their situation, but Jack can hardly believe it. Ma tells Jack because she knows she will need his help to escape.
I went to Room without having read the novel or seen the film since descriptions of both made the works sound too disturbing. This means I had no idea how bad things would become in Act 1 or what could possibly happen in Act 2. Seeing the play without prior knowledge may be impossible for most people, but I would recommend it since I felt I had to pay more than usual attention to every detail. There is no way around the fact that subject matter is extremely disturbing.
Since Room has been been a bestseller since 2010 and became a movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, I feel I will reveal what happens to Ma and Jack since that makes up at least half of the story. If you have not read the novel or seen the film, stop reading after the next sentence. See the play and you will have a gripping edge-of-your-seat experience.
If you have read the novel or seen the film, you will know that Ma makes two attempts to escape both of which rely heavily on Jack’s participation. The first fails. The second succeeds.
The central point of what happens next is that freedom paradoxically makes neither Ma nor Jack feel better. Seven years of captivity means that Ma has to adjust to a world that has changed in her absence. For Jack, “freedom” is worse because he has never experienced a world outside Room and it is a world he does not understand. The certainties, regular daily schedule and ever-presence of Ma are gone and he finds that the outside world is all “too much”. If the question in part one of the story was “Will they ever escape?”, the question in part two is “Will they ever fit in?”
Having adapted the novel for film, Donoghue knew she could adapt it for the stage. She also knew that the stage adaption would have to be quite different. As Donoghue says in her Playwright’s notes, writing for film helped her write for the stage: “I felt freed from the need to be naturalistic in every detail ... because the film had pushed the story as far towards naturalism as it could go. For the theatre production, by contrast, my director/collaborator Cora Bissett and I went back to what readers had responded to so strongly – Jack’s buoyant, world-creating voice – and also let ourselves use more overtly theatrical devices”.
The two main theatrical devices that Donoghue uses are to split the character of Jack into two characters, Jack and SuperJack, and to adds songs. Both devices might seem odd choices for such a horrifying story as Room, but, as it happens, I found both necessary to help me deal with the profoundly disturbing content. Both devices are part of the arsenal of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte or “alienation effects”. Brecht used these to encourage an audience to experience the situations a play in a rational and intellectual way not simply in an emotional manner. And this is exactly how SuperJack and the songs function in Room.
Little Jack, like many kids, imagines he has a superhero alter ego. This is SuperJack, who can do anything to help Ma. In the play SuperJack, played by an adult, functions as the inner voice of Jack, played by a youngster, so that we often hear from SuperJack what Jack is thinking when Jack is silent.
The songs by Kathryn Joseph and director Cora Bissett are used when Ma or Jack experience emotions so overwhelming that spoken words would not suffice. One of the most salient examples is in Act 1 when Ma is being raped by Old Nick. Ma slips from under Nick as she sings to us of a wide range of feelings crashing together as she tries both to blot out the incident and to remind herself that this helps her save Jack. Another example is Ma and Jack’s daily “Scream”. Here the two get on the kitchen table and clangs pots while they scream for help, although instead of screaming, Ma and Jack sing about what they long for. In both cases the songs help make an unbearably emotional scene bearable since the songs force us to look at what the scene means rather than simply react in fear or dismay.
The physical production of the show designed by Lily Arnold is brilliant and is impeccable executed. For the longest time during Act 1 we think that one-room cell where Ma and Jack are held will be all we see. Jack, however, always hides in the wardrobe when Old Nick visits, and during Nick’s first visit the entire set rotates 180º so that we see Jack and SuperJack inside the wardrobe as we look through a scrim to see Ma and Old Nick in Room. Placing Room on a revolve has the unexpected effect not of opening up the space but of making us perceive exactly how confining the space where Ma and Jack spend their lives actually is.
In Act 2 the set is replaced with one where three walls with doors radiate from a centre post. This configuration both depicts the strange new freedom that Ma and Jack experience but also, when the set revolves, its confusing labyrinthine nature.
The production uses the same projections designed by Andrzej Goulding which all depict people and objects as if they were drawn by a child. For the most part they are unnecessary and add an inappropriate note of cuteness to a horror story. Occasionally, however, when they become animations, these drawings show us what little Jack is imagining when others are speaking.
The casting is impeccable. Alexis Gordon has played a large number of prim good women such as Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins at the Grand in 2019 and at Stratford’s Sally Brown in Guys and Dolls in 2017 and Julie Jordan in Carousel in 2015. Unlike these roles, Ma requires the widest possible emotional range from an actor. In playing Ma with such detail and passion Gordon finally has the chance to prove how extraordinarily powerful an actor she truly is. In previous shows Gordon has sung in a lovely bright soprano. Here she deliberately sings in a lower register to bring out the harshness and pain than inform her songs. It’s a terrific performance.
Two boys alternate in the role of the young Jack – Lucien Duncan-Reid and Isaac Chan. The day I attended Chan played the role and he is tremendously impressive. He is so completely natural on stage in speech and movement, it is easy to forget that he is acting. Donoghue leaves it to the young Jack to make one of the most complex points in the play, namely that having tasted so-called “freedom”, Jack deeply longs to be back in Room. On the one hand, we in the audience like the adults on stage, including Ma, find such a desire incomprehensible. On the other hand, seeing the world from Jack’s perspective which the play so often forces us to do, we have to understand why Room, despite the circumstances that made it a hell for Ma, was a place of joy and comfort for Jack. Chan exudes such innocence and truthfulness of expression that we sympathize with him completely, even in his ardent desire to give up the “freedom” of the outside world. It’s a marvel to see so young an actor convey so complex an idea so well.
As SuperJack, Brandon Michael Arrington is highly expressive in both speech and movement. Adults playing children often have a tendency to cutesify their voice and actions, but Arrington avoids this by matching the sincerity of Chan’s performance. In fact, Arrington and Chan are so in sync that they seem to complement each other perfectly. Arrington sings in an attractive velvety tone that matches both the gentleness and strength we perceive in young Jack. Arrington’s and Gordon’s voices blend beautifully in their various duets.
As Old Nick, Ashley Wright does not actually have much stage time, but he certainly makes up for it with the terrifying impression he creates. Wright’s most chilling moments are when he tells Ma that that she should actually be thankful for what he is doing for her. Wright shows us through his intense delivery that Old Nick is so thoroughly deluded that that he beyond the reach of reason.
The other three members of the cast appear only in Act 2. Here Tracey Ferencz is wonderfully sympathetic as Ma’s mother Grandma. In contrast, Stewart Arnott shows Grandpa to be a difficult man who can’t seem to see his daughter or her son without also thinking of disgrace and degradation. Grandpa’s struggle to overcome these feelings, well played by Arnott, is one of the strong undercurrents of Act 2. Shannon Taylor plays three characters and clearly distinguishes them. One is a strict but compassionate police officer. Another is an icily antagonistic television interviewer. The third is a giddy, fame-obsessed popcorn-seller.
There is no doubt that the way Donoghue has written the play emphasizes not the terror of the situation, either in or outside Room, but rather how Ma and Jack cope with their situation. Ma’s motto is “mind over matter” and indeed that is what the play so ably illustrates. Since Jack knows no other world than Room, Ma encourages Jack to see Room in the most positive light possible. Ma has no control once in the outside world so both parent and child struggle. Ultimately, though, Donoghue shows that even if there are wounds, healing is possible. This is a message that we who have been confined for two years to our own rooms earnestly need to hear.
Photo: Brandon Michael Arrington as SuperJack, Lucien Duncan-Reid as Jack and Alexis Gordon as Ma; Alexis Gordon as Ma, Lucien Duncan-Reid as Jack and Brandon Michael Arrington as SuperJack; Lucien Duncan-Reid as Jack, Brandon Michael Arrington as SuperJack, Ashley Wright as Old Nick and Alexis Gordon as Ma. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.