Room, Theatre Royal Stratford East

https://cdn.thestage.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/11091735/Harrison-Wilding-and-Witney-White-Room-Scott-Rylander-1-700x455.jpg

Originally a novel by Emma Donoghue that swept up the award nominations last year after being made into a film, Room is now a play. Adapted by the writer for the stage, it stays true to the original story of a young woman abducted at 19 and imprisoned as a sex slave. After two years in captivity she gives birth to her son Jack. Five years later as they celebrate his fifth birthday, all Jack has ever known is the inside of the shed. To ensure he copes, Ma’s taught him that the only things that are real are what’s inside the room. Everything outside isn’t real, and the pictures on their telly exist only in the small box. But Ma’s had enough and wants Jack to help them escape now that he’s big enough.

Though the performances are strong and the story is as compelling as its other incarnations, fantastic design and Andrzej Goulding’s video projections lend this production its power. Told from Jack’s perspective, his narrations are augmented by animations of a child’s fantastical illustrations. Their grey, sparse room is decorated with the demons and flames representing their captor Old Nick (who Jack never sees), and the creatures in the stories he and Ma tell each other. The juxtaposition of his endless imagination against their prison evokes a range of strong feelings – anger at their confinement, joy at the boy’s creativity, and pleasure from the overall aesthetic experience. Lily Arnold’s set transition from Act I’s definite boarders and concreteness and Act II’s abstract expanse and levels exquisitely captures Jack’s experience of adapting to the outside world.

Whitney White is Ma, the young woman forced to be a strong parent in the face of extraordinary evil. She’s a calm, patient force brimming with love for her son. She is creative and forceful in captivity, though she knows she can never say no to Old Nick’s advances in the dead of the night. White has the opportunity to show her range when in the second half of the play after her rescue, she struggles to maintain the strength needed in the first half.

Fela Lufadeju is Jack’s internal monologue personified. He adds humour, charm and adult expression of the thoughts Jack cannot express. He convincingly captures the boy’s physicality and inquisitiveness, adding an additional level of complexity to the childlike simplicity of the story. This is a great choice from Donoghue.

There’s a lot of depth considering the story is from a five-year-old’s point of view. Trauma, abuse, recovery, materialism and the media’s portrayal of human interest stories all play a part. There are parallels to the experiences of refugees and prisoners of war; it would be an interesting experiment to recontexualise the story for a non-Western setting.

There are few faults in this production, but the design is what impresses the most. Intuitive, bold and colourful, it surprises as well as adds understanding. Familiarity with the story is no inhibition to engagement with this production, so it’s worth seeing in any case.

Room runs through 3 June.

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