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 - draw 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.
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 Cora 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.
*Dundee Rep until 17 June; and Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 24 June until 22 July