Review: ROOM

by Lynn on March 16, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont. until March 19, 2022.

Adapted for the stage from her novel (“Room”) by Emma Donoghue

Directed/music & lyrics by Cora Bissett

Associate director, Megan Watson

Music and lyrics by Kathryn Joseph

Set and costumes designed by Lily Arnold

Video Designer, Andrzej Goulding

Lighting designer, Bonnie Beecher

Sound designer, John Gzowski

Cast: Stewart Arnott

Brandon Michael Arrington

Lucien Duncan-Reid (Isaac Chan, alternates in the part)

Tracey Ferencz

Alexis Gordon

Shannon Taylor

Ashley Wright

Note. Room was scheduled twice to play the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario but COVID cancelled each run. This is the third time it was scheduled and that is the charm. After it’s short run in London, Ont. the production moves to Toronto to play the Princess of Wales Theatre as part of the Mirvish season. I couldn’t wait. I saw this in London and will see it again in Toronto.  

The Story. (I’m using the theatre’s description so as not to give too much away. The bracketed information is mine).Kidnapped as a teenage girl, Ma has been locked inside a purpose-built room in her captor’s (Old Nick) garden for seven years. (He has sexually abused her for those seven years, resulting in Ma giving birth to Jack). Her (now) five-year-old son, Jack, has no concept of the world outside and happily exists inside Room with the help of Ma’s games and his vivid imagination where objects like Rug, Lamp, and TV are his only friends. But for Ma the time has come to escape and face their biggest challenge to date: the world outside Room.”

The Production. The stage curtain is down as the audience files into the theatre. About 15 minutes to show time a large square section of the curtain is illuminated and we see activity reflected on the other side of the curtain, but as if it was an arial shot of what is happening in the

room. Two figures, one small and one bigger, navigate the room, play on what looks like a bed, cuddle, do exercises together, separate with one going one way and one going the other way to occupy them in activities. This activity goes on until the beginning of the show.

In this “pre-show” director Cora Bissett establishes what goes on in that room between Ma and Jack in a day. Even if you have not read Emma Donoghue’s novel, or saw the film, or read anything about this show, the set-up is established. You would be wise to come early to the theatre so that you can get acclimatized to these details. We learn the extent of the activities when the curtain does lift to reveal the room and begin the play.

Lily Arnold has designed a set of the room that is both apt and problematic. The room is compact with the stuff of daily life for Ma (Alexis Gordon) and Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid). There is a bed along one wall, a toilet, sink and ‘laundry’ line along the opposite wall. There is a cupboard up left and a small, old television down right. There is a skylight to the room. There is also a table. And there is a door leading outside that is locked with a keypad combination.

The Act I set of the room is problematic if one is sitting house left within several rows of the front because the wall of the room cuts off ones vision of some of the activity that goes on on that side of the stage. The director has to sit everywhere in the theatre to ensure that doesn’t happen. I hope it can be adjusted when the production travels to Toronto and the Princess of Wales theatre. The set for Act II is a complex assortment of revolving doors and rooms that beautifully illuminates the confusion of the outside world.  

Acting as an ‘older’, wiser version of little Jack is Superjack (Brandon Michael Arrington) who echoes everything that Jack does.

Ma has created a day full of regimented activity for her and Jack in an effort to create ‘normalcy.’ Jack counts out 50 Cheerios exactly for him and for Ma. After that there is clean up, then laundry, then reading one of the five books they have, then some television, but not too much. Ma explains that sometimes what happens on television is not real. As Ma, Alexis Gordon is buoyant, cheerful, measured, loving and totally devoted to Jack and creating a world that is a ‘normal’ as one can be when one is five years old and has never been outside that room. The only time Jack senses that something is different is when Old Nick (Ashley Wright) makes his usual visit at night to bring supplies and sexually abuse Ma. For those times, Jack goes into the cupboard (where he also sleeps) and does not come out.

When Jack is sleeping then Ma shows her real anxiety. She has frantically tried to find the combination of the keypad lock, noting various patterns of numbers that she quickly discards when it doesn’t work.

Alexis Gordon as Ma walks a fine line between the cheerful, fun-loving Ma, determined to protect her son from whatever, and the frantic mother trying to get out and get to freedom. Alexis Gordon accomplishes this balance beautifully. The music and lyrics by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph express the inner feelings of the character. This is not a musical. This is a play with music—a huge difference. And here too Alexis Gordon sings each song diving deep into each to express the emotional power of each lyric.

Alexis Gordon is beautifully ‘accompanied’ by Lucien Duncan-Reid as Jack. This young actor is confident without being cloying. He is direct, innocent, limited in his world, but comfortable with that world because he hasn’t known anything else. And the rapport between Alexis Gordon and Lucien Duncan-Reid is true, genuine and totally committed. As Superjack, Brandon Michael Arrington has that mix of the innocence of a five-year-old, and the smarts of a wiser version of that younger ‘self’. Ashley Wright plays Old Nick with a sense of danger, he can explode any minute. Old Nick is big and lumbering and it’s a lovely touch that he always adjusts his slipping glasses with his finger. One does wonder at the desperation of a man who has to kidnap a young woman, hold her captive to sexually abuse her, and have this continue for seven years.

Director Cora Bissett was not able to come to Canada from her native Scotland for rehearsals because of COIVID restrictions—so direction was done by the magic of Zoom and the able assistance of associate director Megan Watson. You got the sense of the claustrophobia of that room by the performances, the direction and almost constant activity to suggest a normal day, and writer Emma Donoghue’s writing.

Comment. Donoghue has created a compelling story that draws the audience in to this restricted world, so that they experience just a fraction of what those characters are going through. It’s a fascinating imagination that can conjure an ideal world for a little boy, and a claustrophobic one for his adult mother in the same room. When freedom appears Donoghue creates another kind of claustrophobia that affects both Ma and Jack in their own way. That too is fascinating.

More than anything Room is a testament to tenacity—certainly the tenacity of Ma to plot and plan their escape. It also is a testament to the determination and tenacity of Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum and his equally determined and tenacious Executive Director, Deb Harvey to get this production up and running after the various disappointments and cancellations caused by COVID. Bravo also to the cast who stuck with it, except the two young boys originally cast as Jack who had to withdraw because they got older! And kudos to the audience who packed the place. Audiences are eager to see compelling, engaging theatre again and Room is definitely that kind of theatre. See it in London at the Grand. See it in Toronto at the Princess of Wales in April. But see it.

The Grand Theatre Presents a co-production with Covent Garden Production and Mirvish Productions:

Runs until: March 19, 2022

Plays: The Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, from April 5-May 8. (

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)

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1 Susan Goddard March 19, 2022 at 10:44 am

I read the book years ago, and during Covid thought a lot about it – especially when those living in small condos/apartments were (somewhat justifiably) complaining about living in such close quarters. I wonder if the work will now resonate more because of the experience we have all been living through for the past number of years. Looking forward to seeing the production when it comes here.