Emma Donoghue’s novel Room won the Booker Prize in 2010. Seven years later, the compelling story of five-year-old Jack and Ma who live in a single room with only objects and their own imaginations for company is going from strength to strength. A hugely successful film in 2015 starring Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson is now matched by a breath-taking stage production, currently showing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, which takes the psychological intimacy of the novel and runs another mile with it.
Room is based on the horrific story of Elisabeth Fritzl who was imprisoned and continually raped by her father, Joseph, in the basement of the family home, in which she was forced to bring up four of her seven children. Many of the finer details between Room and the Fritzl case are the same: the father figure regularly visits in person to provide sustenance in the form of food and further trauma in the form of violent and sexual abuse; he asserts his power by turning off the power supplies which sustain the captives; and he is eventually found out by a child becoming ill and being taken to hospital. These “realities” add a certain backbone to the story in both the novel and the play: far from being a farfetched tale told for the intrigue and sensationalist horror, Donoghue’s creation renders within the confines of fiction the realities of the latent darkness of the human condition.
Within this re-rendering, however, comes the ability to make the most of what fiction has to offer in bringing stories to people in fresh perspectives. The play, Room, tells a different story to the novel, and to the film, because of the very nature of the strengths of each of these three forms. Stylishly and thoughtfully directed by Cora Bissett, the play must tackle firstly the capacity of child actors. Jack the character is five; Jack’s actors – the part is split between Harrison Wilding, Darmani Eboji and Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans – are no more than about eight years old. On the night I was in the audience Harrison Wilding achieved a huge amount on stage, and the relationship between him and Ma (Whitney White) was utterly absorbing. Alongside “little” Jack, we are given an adult actor in the form of Fela Lufadeju who also plays Jack, articulating the more complex emotions of the child whilst providing a heightened physicality to the role so that the character in his dual form literally fills the stage at the heights of his emotion.
The added bonus of Fela Lufadeju comes from his singing voice. It may sound odd, but Room on stage is more of an opera than a straight-up play, and Lufadeju and White between them create some of the most hair-raising moments through song. In the book, Ma is never fully given her own voice, but in this staged version gives her an interior monologue evoked in a kind of musical soliloquy. Perhaps the most effective use of this was in the relating of the characters’ escape. Having failed to convince Old Nick (Liam McKenna) to take a supposedly crucially ill Jack to hospital, Ma decides that Jack must seemingly die in order to be taken out of the garden shed in which they are contained. Once out and in the truck, this child who has never ventured beyond the four walls of his Room must leap out of a moving vehicle, rush up to a stranger, and give them a note written by Ma. It’s unlikely to work but this unlikeliness, just as in the book, instils less a cynical acknowledgement of the possibility of artistic licence, and more a nail-biting tension and wild hope that “the plan” might actually result in freedom. Ma drums the plan into Jack in a series of steps: truck – wriggle – jump out – stranger – note – police – rescue Ma. To Jack the plan is baffling: too long and not clearly linked to a desired outcome. The Room is, after all, the safety of all he’s ever known. We end the first half with Ma still in the Room, singing the barest bones of the plan in ever-growing desperation as a voice-over and then the dazzling lights of police cars represent Jack’s successful dash to safety. Finally the door of Room is blown open – and we are blown away.
The simple staging of the escape perfectly conveys us through the complexities and unlikelihood of the whole plan, making the most of what a live performance has to offer in terms of visual and aural depth. The confines of Room make perfect sense when represented on stage – these four walls are the limits of our experience as much as they are Jack’s. Old Nick wields a power of entry and exit to which neither we nor Ma nor Jack are privy. In this sense the set – a revolving “Room” in the first half, briefly a hospital room and then the interior of Ma’s parents house in the second half –does exactly what is required of it. Like the presence of Lufadeju as adult-actor Jack, which only adds to the performance rather than manifesting as a distracting artistic gimmick, the set fits in so seamlessly to the production as a whole that we stop thinking of it as a “feature” and start thinking of the entire thing as a two hour twenty minute cultural event.
After its tragic beginnings, there can be no perfect end for young Ma and Jack, who have both gone through obvious trauma. The play makes no bones of their difficulty of adapting to the outside world, and enforces the meticulously researched details of the novel: after five years indoors both mother and son must wear sunglasses when they go outside; Jack in particular suffers from over-stimulation from his new and bewildering environment. The touching end, in which the two go back to the soon-to-be-demolished Room, and the older and sadder Jack repeats his ritual of saying goodbye to each item in turn – “goodbye wall…. goodbye skylight” – brings the story full circle and reiterates the whole point of a stage: that a single space is transformative, and becomes a different place at different times.
Is it problematic to create an immensely moving yet strangely cathartic play out of the tragic story of real individuals? Or is it fictions – staged or written or screened – that allow us to make a little more sense of ourselves and others? Watching Room at Stratford East brought home in crushing realisation why theatre matters. The tale of Jack and Ma has resonated with millions in a variety of cultural forms, and yet experiencing this production in a packed auditorium was to share a singular and fleeting moment. In this moment was iterated the unique ability of live performance to bring stories of people, to people, in breath-taking simultaneity.
Room is showing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until the 3rd of June. For more information and tickets see here.