Theatre review: Room

Witney White is superb as Ma, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans compelling as five-year-old Jack
Witney White is superb as Ma, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans compelling as five-year-old Jack
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It has echoes of real-life stories, of course; young women taken from the street, held in basements or garden sheds, and systematically raped and abused over a period of years, stretching towards decades. Yet the most striking thing about Emma Donoghue’s stage version of her award-winning novel, Room, is its intense imaginative quality, as she and director Cora Bissett – with an outstanding creative team – draws us into the inner world of five-year-old Jack, who lives imprisoned in a cell-like garden shed with his mother, and of his older alter ego, Big Jack, who watches and waits, and carries some of the narrative.

Dundee Rep ****

For in their five years alone together – apart from night-time visits from Old Nick, Ma’s dungaree-wearing captor – Jack and his Ma have created a whole imaginative world together, with its own creation myths and legends, and moral structures; Jack came from heaven to make his mother happy, the bath, rug, chair and wardrobe are Jack’s friends, while Old Nick most definitely is not.

In Lily Arnold’s superb set - with lighting by David Plater and video images by Andrzej Goulding – the room whirls and swirls on a dark stage, its walls sometimes close and confining, sometimes made transparent by the sheer power of imagination.

And Kathryn Joseph’s songs, co-written with Bissett, burst from the texture of the play like some heightened form of speech, created under the pressure of the situation; not only during the confinement of the show’s first half, but afterwards, when Jack and Ma lose the room-world they have made together, and have, somehow, to find another.

Co-produced by the Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Abbey Theatre Dublin, in association with the National Theatre of Scotland and others, Room is shaped and driven by a superb central performance from Witney White as Ma, and a trio of wonderful boys as Little Jack. On Tuesday night at Dundee, Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans’s performance was beautiful, heartbreaking, completely compelling; and Fela Lufadeju sings magnificently as Big Jack, a gentle presence looking back on their imprisonment.

The story of Room is in some ways a harrowing one, that brings many in the audience to tears. Yet it is also a tremendously beautiful, vivid and uplifting show about the power of a mother’s love; to create a whole world for her child, to save his life and her own, and eventually –not without huge difficulty and pain – to bring then both through, into a brand new life.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

*Dundee Rep until Saturday 17 June; Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 24 June until 22 July