Review: Room (Dundee Rep)
Updated: Jun 10
It is not that often that a story goes from being a film to a stage adaptation. More often it is the other way around, but with the huge success of adaptations such as “War Horse”, “Billy Elliott” and “Groundhog Day”, so I was curious to see how “Room” would fair. I loved the film, both for the incredible performances by its leads and the technical subtlety of showing the story entirely from the perspective of Jack, a young boy raised in a shed in which he and his mother are imprisoned, before escaping and learning to adjust to the outside world. This production, based on the original novel of the same name is adapted for stage by its author Emma Donoghue, and has gained similar praise and shows off Donoghue’s theatrical creativity.
Where the film focused on creating naturalism, the stage adaptation goes in the opposite direction. The design is dream-like and imaginative, featuring large screens descending from the rafters, etched scribbles and rain projected onto the stage, and amplified sound design, all to illustrate Jack’s active imagination and feeling of being overwhelmed by sights and sounds. Despite the charm and nostalgia of this design, it was often a bit overwhelming and distracting. I suspect this was a case of a good idea being taken a little too far. Cora Bissette’s direction outside of the deisgn is mixed as well. On one hand the use of space and directorial concepts for each scene are original, appropriate and give meaning to the wonderful script, but on the other it often felt rushed. The timing in the dialogue wasn’t at all at the tension it needed to be, which lead to scenes, such as the one in which Jack yells "I hates you", falling flat.
This wasn’t helped by Witney White’s performance as “Ma”. The weight of time is nowhere to be seen in her performance. Granted, her character is determined to make her son’s life feel exciting and new but in the process it often appears that Ma herself is excited and happy, showing too little mental weariness in the first half and then trying to make up for it in the second. It results in her performance feeling like two different characters, one distraught and bored the other a sort of overly exuberant mother, the type of which one can find in schmaltzy melodramas, overacting in both roles. Perhaps I am being too harsh but her lack of believability meant I could not get as emotionally involved as I wanted to, given the poignancy of the story.
There was also an unexpected element to this production that rather got in the way. This intense and important story is… a musical. Sort of. One could make the argument that it is more of a play with songs. One could also make the argument that these songs add little to the story or atmosphere. Most are power ballads about the difficulties the characters face, as though simply saying how they were feeling would be insufficient to express their emotions. For example there is one in which Ma sings about God. Her continuing faith is an interesting theme, and one that would have benefitted from being expanded on, rather than being unsatisfactorily addressed in a bland and repetitive ballad. When we aren’t being treated to uninspiring musical numbers we are treated to some weird light and jazz which squanders any tension, on top of the over excited sound design.
There are, however, several things to like about this production. The character of Jack is split into two actors: a child (the actor of which changes regularly, on the night I saw the performance Darmani Eboji took the role), plays “little Jack”, and an adult (Fela Lufadeju) plays “big Jack”, who acts as jack’s “inner stream of consciousness”. At first I thought this was a bit of a cop-out to solve the problem of child actors having too many lines to remember and too little time to learn them, but I quickly overcame my cynicism and warmed to them. Both characters are written well and match one another, and Lufadeju’s charism and energy make him difficult to look away from. He is likable, genuine, and gives insight into Jack’s mind that we could not have seen otherwise. The supporting cast are all very strong as well, in particular Stephan Casey as Jack’s grandfather, who is coming to terms both with his daughter being alive and his grandson existing but being the son of his daughter’s captor. Casey plays the character with great sensitivity, and in a scene where he got to know Jack whilst playing with Lego there were several tears being wiped away among the audience.
For me “Room” was a really mixed bag. Not because it had too many differing ideas, but in most cases they were overplayed or underplayed. Maybe I would have felt less critical of it if I had not seen the film, but that is a bit of a weak excuse for an overcooked production. However, I would recommend that you don’t take my review as gospel, as I seem to be in the minority. In the interval most people in the audience turned to each other to say how moving and beautiful it was, and at the end many audience members gave a standing ovation. You know yourself best, if you want to be moved and are easily moved, this is the show for you. I should not pretend that I actively disliked this performance, because I didn’t. It’s just that it could’ve been a lot better. Two stars.