What Does It Mean to Be Free? Room by Emma Donoghue: A Review

The feeling of entrapment is immersed within the narrative of Emma Donoghue’s play, Room, an adaptation of her 2010 best-selling novel and academy award winning film. This summer, the Abbey plays host to the entrapment, in a co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East. The story tells of a Ma and Little Jack, a young woman and her child, imprisoned in a metal shed for seven years by a psychotic abuser (much akin to the Josef Fritzl real life horror), where they attempt to make sense of the world they encompass through the use of everyday objects. “Morning Ma, morning wardrobe, morning lamp,” exclaims four-year-old Jack, played by Taye Kassim Junaid- Evans. These constructed daily rituals reveal the power of imagination and the lengths a mother will go to in creating an altered reality in opposition the horror of their situation.

The story itself sounds terrifying, right? Despite my familiarity of both the novel and adapted screenplay, I had my reservations about a two-and-a-half-hour isolated performance of the eerie story. My intimidations, however, were quickly subsided. Room perfectly balances itself on the theatrical tightrope of being both deeply touching and hauntingly powerful, subtly plucking at our heartstrings. Director Cora Bissett’s production is pinpoint accurate to the stream of consciousness narrative that unfolded within Donoghue’s novel. The depth of characterisation that is frequently lost in film adaptations is strikingly recaptured within this stage production, illustrating the advantages of theatre as the link between capturing the essence of Donoghue’s novel in performance.

Whitney White as Ma. Photograph: Scott Rylander

The four bleak walls of Room are constructed within a revolving frame, revealing the subjective viewpoints of both Ma and little Jack’s diminutive world. The set is complimented by the striking audio-visual projections that reveal a profound insight into Jack’s realm, a score composed by Kathryn Joseph and Cora Bissett. This semi-musical transformation helps the production to overcome the two-dimensional perspective of the novel, allowing the inner turmoil of the characters to reach the audience in a different medium. The horror of their world is manifested by Old Nick’s (played by Liam McKenna) periodic visits to Room. Old Nick, or “Him” as he is simply referred to, heightens the tension of the play with the nocturnal terror he inflicts upon Ma. This is visualised from distinctive angles as the set spins around revealing the subjective viewpoints, finally resting on the confines of Jack’s wardrobe.

There is also an added dimension to the piece with the inclusion of Big Jack, played admirably by Fela Lufadeju, who deciphers the inner thoughts that young Jack perhaps cannot express (the never work with children rule may be applied here!). The essence of Big Jack’s presence as a spectator of his young life delivers a sobering and humorous element to the story. However, the burdening emotion of the piece stems from Ma, who’s integrity and determination to break free from captivity is played to precision by Witney White. Her performance as Ma is exceptional, delicately masking the unspeakable horrors of their existence from her son.

“Is this what free is?” asks little Jack in the second act, wearily craving the solitude of Room, as he is surrounded by the noise of the real world, of journalists, grandparents and doctors seeking blood samples. Room’s metaphorical resonance enables a multitude of interpretations. If there is a fault, it is perhaps that the second act failed to equal the dramatic heights of first. However, this is a trivial defect in a production that is so ingeniously captivating. Go see it before it’s gone!


By Simon J


Photographs: Scott Rylander