Room, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel Room tells the harrowing story of a woman who is kept prisoner in a small room, told solely from the perspective of her five-year-old son Jack, fathered by their captor and to whom the wooden walls of their single room are the extent of the world.

Donoghue adapted her book into an Oscar-nominated screenplay, with Brie Larson winning the Academy Award for her portrayal of Ma. And now, the playwright has further adapted the novel into a frequently moving, theatrically visual spectacle in a way that makes the stage feel like it is the perfect home for this story.

In Jack’s narration, Room is a character in his life, just as Ma and their mysterious captor ‘Old Nick’ are. And Lily Arnold’s design for the space reflects that. Initially viewed from a top-down view projected onto the safety curtain before the play starts, the cuboid cabin feels utterly lived in and a viable candidate for the entirety of Jack’s world.

Frequent use of animated child’s drawings projected onto the set work well, especially when used to shield Little Jack (and us) from the atrocities of the visits by Liam McKenna’s Old Nick.

Witney White’s portrayal of Ma expels all thought of Larson from the outset, giving a convincingly desperate performance of a young woman who has spent nearly a third of her life imprisoned, but who tries to keep the mood buoyant for her son.

It is in the portrayal of Jack, though, that Donoghue performs her master stroke. While the five-year-old is played by one of three boys (Harrison Wilding on press night, in a role shared with Darmani Eboji and Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans), the uniquely articulate narration from the novel and the film’s voiceover is here personified in the form of ‘Big Jack’.

Fela Lufadeju bounds across the stage, expressing Little Jack’s inner thoughts and reasoning in a manner that embodies the exuberance, the fears, and the questioning that makes the book-loving five-year-old such an engaging narrator.

Director Cora Bissett wisely avoids making Lufadeju and Wilding mirror one another much, or even physically interact at all – but one is never in doubt that they are the same character’s id and ego as they work together to understand the wider world.

While Little Jack has a physical character on stage to reveal his inner thoughts, for White’s Ma, that function is delivered through song.

Bissett and Kathryn Joseph have created a number of songs through which Ma, who has no other outlet to express her rage, confusion and other turbulent emotions, is able to get those feelings out.

It is an interesting technique, which is reprised by Lufadeju in Act II as Jack feels increasingly isolated from his mother. It is such a shame, then, that the songs themselves feel so indistinct and unmemorable.

The big risk with Donoghue’s story is what happens when the character of Room disappears, and Ma and Jack must deal with engaging with the wider world.

Arnold’s designs work well in Act II, replacing the rigid shabbiness with ever-rearranging walls, doors and stairs that are just as confining in different ways.

The sleek, modern lines will reinforce the thought, present from the outset, that this piece’s presentation owes a lot to Marianne Elliott’s staging of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another tale told through the unique perspective of a remarkable young man.

As Ma learns to re-engage with her parents, Jack retreats into himself and longs for the security of Room. Wilding is one of those young actors who has already learned that the rawest emotions can be expressed in stillness, the dual portrayal with Lufadeju succeeding through both actors.

The introduction of Ma’s parents (Lucy Tregear and Stephen Casey) derail the project slightly, in that they and Janet Kumah’s TV interviewer are much less deeply drawn and intimately crafted as the mother and son at the heart of the story.

But it would take a lot to stop Room from being a visual and emotional spectacle, and that is what Theatre Royal Stratford East and Dublin’s Abbey Theatre have produced.

This production tours to Dundee and Dublin once it leaves Stratford. When it returns to London, as it surely must, one can imagine many a West End theatre longing to bring this magnificent story to a wider audience.