Review: ROOM

by Lynn on April 11, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont. until May 8, 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

Tracey Ferencz

Alexis Gordon

Shannon Taylor

Ashley Wright

Note. This production of Room played first at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario and was then set to play the CAA Theatre  in Toronto as part of the Mirvish season. Because of COVID the venue was changed to The Princess of Wales Theatre. I first saw ROOM in London, Ontario because I couldn’t wait. And then saw it at the Princess of Wales recently.

The Story.  (As I wrote in my original review, 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 Toronto production has all the same creatives and cast as the production I saw last month at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. Performances have deepened since I saw it at the Grand Theatre.  I will reference those areas of my original review where applicable, and note where there are changes.

The stage curtain is down as the audience files into the theatre. There is a large square section of the curtain that is illuminated with distinct areas of it sectioned.  We see activity reflected on the other side of the curtain, but as if it is 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 fact, we are looking at an ‘aerial view’ of the room in which Ma and Jack are living.

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. 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 still problematic, as it was at the Grand Theatre, in London, Ont. 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 with an old television on the floor downstage of the bed. 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.

As I wrote about the Grand Theatre production, the Act I set of the room is problematic if one is sitting house left within several rows of the front, as I was, because the wall of the room cuts off ones vision of some of the activity that goes on on that side of the stage. I did find myself leaning to the right to see if I could make out details.

For the Toronto run of the show, at the larger Princess of Wales Theatre, I was sitting house right on the aisle and there were problems with seeing what was on that side of the room. I could not see the toilet, sink and ‘laundry’ line along the house right side of the wall.

I did all sorts of head scratching about this. When ROOM played at the Stratford East Theatre in London, England and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the cast was different but the set and director etc. were the same. Those proscenium stages are much smaller than the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. and the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. (In Toronto ROOM was originally scheduled to play the CAA Theatre, but scheduling difficulties changed that to the larger Princess of Wales Theatre). The set seems too small for our two Canadian venues, until I found out that not being able to see everything is deliberate; the design team did all sorts of thinking about this. The walls are fixed to suggest the sense of claustrophobia that Ma is experiencing and to give that sense to the audience. Hmmmm. Ok… I can understand that. But audiences are curious. They want to see everything. They are curious about what they can’t see, and when I saw the show in Toronto, I could not see most of what was on the house right side (and because I had seen that wall clearly in London, Ont. I knew what I was missing. Frustrating). It’s glib to say, “don’t sell those tickets” but theatres are not in the business NOT to sell tickets. True one might get a glimpse of what is obscured when the set revolves and we might get a better view, but we aren’t sure what we are looking at or why when the set revolves. I think Lily Arnold’s set for Act I is a misstep.  

The set for Act II is a complex assortment of revolving doors and rooms that beautifully illuminates the confusion of the outside world. 

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 that she can’t express to Jack. She muses on how she has saved her by just being there. She expresses her emotions and her feelings in song.   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.

Acting as an ‘older’, wiser version of little Jack is SuperJack (Brandon Michael Arrington) who echoes everything that Jack does. 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’. He also offers a more mature insight into what Jack might be feeling again through song. SuperJack sings of his/Jack’s frustrations, again in song.  

 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. Audiences are eager to see compelling, engaging theatre again and Room is definitely that kind of theatre. And please read about the shows you are seeing so you know what you are seeing and you won’t be surprises with ‘anxiety,’ as the young man was sitting next to me.

David Mirvish presents a co-production with the Grand Theatre, London, ON,  and Covent Garden Productions UK:

Runs until: May 8, 2022

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

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