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Review: Emma Donoghue’s Room at Theatre Royal Stratford East shows the power of imagination

PUBLISHED: 12:01 11 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:21 11 May 2017

Witney White plays Ma in Emma Donoghue's Room. Photo: Scott Rylander.

Witney White plays Ma in Emma Donoghue's Room. Photo: Scott Rylander.

Copyright Scott Rylander 2017

What does it mean to be free?

Witney White (Ma) and Harrison Wilding (Little Jack) in Emma Donoghue's Room. Photo: Scott Rylander.Witney White (Ma) and Harrison Wilding (Little Jack) in Emma Donoghue's Room. Photo: Scott Rylander.

This is a question that comes up again and again in Emma Donoghue’s Room, a stage adaptation of the writer’s acclaimed 2010 novel that premiered at Theatre Royal Stratford East this month.

In this iteration (the book was also made into an Academy Award winning film), the four walls enveloping captive mother and son are given are given nearly anthropomorphic dimensions through the boy’s imagination and the familiarity of the objects over their five years (seven years for Ma) of isolation.

“Morning Ma, morning wardrobe, morning lamp,” exclaims four-year-old Little Jack, who whirls around greeting every object with a child’s capacity to build a world out of nothing.

Night falls, a new day dawns through Skylight, and Ma (Witney White) tests the limits of parenthood through exhausting every possible variation of every possible story and game for her son (on Thursday played by Harrison Wilding).

A new introduction to the narrative is Big Jack (Fela Lufadeju), a young adult on stage throughout who complements what perhaps young Jack can’t express, with humorous, yet sobering effect.

The room itself is oppressive but also oddly normal, not the sparse bunker we might expect. The revolving square transforms into something more than a room when flights of imagination and intensity are pictured with scrawled children’s pictures.

The horror and hold of Room mounts slowly, insidiously as the drama unfurls, with the audience linking as mother and son do the eerie beeps of the security door with the nightly abuse carried out by Old Nick or just “Him”.

The pain of Ma’s situation is captured neatly through song, while in speech confining herself to practical dilemmas – making a cake without candles, recycling yet another story with a tremendous bravery born of love.

“If I save him from you, I’ll save me,” she sings, to a simple, powerful music and lyrics by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph.

After the interval we’re presented with the startling white, flickering, terrifying world of a hospital after liberation, where the “word sandwich” of scary and brave “skave” enters Little Jack and Ma’s vocabulary with increasing regularity.

“Is this what free is?” asks Little Jack wistfully, pining for the simplicity of Room as he and his mum find themselves in a range of unknown situations with grandparents, journalists and doctors, beginning the painful journey of moving forward.

Forced to look on without the option of putting down your book or turning off the TV, this stage adaptation makes you live through horrific experiences as if they were your own with the help of the moving, utterly compelling performances of White and Wilding.

Intense and claustrophobic, this gruelling performance is a masterclass in portraying the limits of human endurance – and a demonstration of the power of imagination.

Room runs until June 3 at Theatre Royal Stratford East and tours at Dundee Rup Theatre and Abbey Theatre until July 22. Tickets start from £12, go to stratfordeast.com to book.

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