Abbey’s production of Room struggles in ‘the stinky world’

The songs in this adaptation are curiously conventional for an unconventional piece

Harrison Wilding and Witney White in Room

Harrison Wilding and Witney White in Room

 

Abbey Theatre

★★★

Held captive in a tiny, cramped space for several years, a mother and her young boy, confined since birth, pass the time by playing, planning and often telling tales. “Is that a true story?” asks Jack, on his fifth birthday, hearing about the daring escape of a mermaid and her amphibian child. “Well,” says Ma, “stories are a different kind of truth.”

Inspired by hideously real accounts of incest and incarceration, but alert to the echoes of a troubling fairytale, that’s a fitting description for Emma Donoghue’s Room. Donoghue’s story of protection, imagination and survival first captivated as a novel, told from Jack’s innocent perspective, then as a lucid film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Now Donoghue has adapted it once more for the stage, a defiantly third-person medium, which relates its truths in different ways.

Director Cora Bissett’s production for the Abbey and Theatre Royal Stratford East uses devices to both burrow deep within and sometimes to bust out. As Jack describes the boundaries of his known world, where outer space awaits beyond the skylight, Lily Arnold’s confined set fills with drawings of his imaginings, projected by Andrzej Goulding’s video. Emerging from the child Jack (Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans), however, is Big Jack, the same character played by an adult performer, Fela Lufadeju, who delivers the five-year-old’s inner monologue.

On stage, two versions of the same character often appear in memory plays or as manifestations of a divided self (think Friel, in either case). Here, though, it works more as theatrical overdubbing; as though Jack was being shadowed by a childlike, wide-eyed, outsized understudy. It’s hard to see what it adds or solves.

Similar is the introduction of songs, a common feature of Bisett’s work, which provide a conduit to what is unspoken. When Old Nick (Liam McKenna) comes to rape her, Witney White’s Ma escapes into a piano ballad (“I am not inside myself, I am waiting somewhere else.”)

Written by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, the songs are curiously conventional for such an unconventional piece, worthy of a rock musical, and as prone to over-explication: “If I save you from him, you will save me,” sings Ma. At such moments, it is the songwriters more than the characters who seem to have nowhere to go.

The overall effect is to create a childlike experience, where complexity is made thoroughly comprehensible, as though the book’s style was as important to adapt as its narrative. The difficulty with adaptation, however, was always one of Room’s main concerns and when Jack and Ma finally get free, struggling to adjust to the rules and impediments of “the stinky world”, the production becomes intriguingly fractured.

Gone is Arnold’s intact, revolving space of room, traded for fractured images of medical examination and media interrogation, relocating us to a house so skeletal it could be a child’s drawing. “Most of the world is pretend,” realises Jack, affronted later by the plastic parameters of a shopping centre. It’s a tender, telling insight.

In the limits of their room, everything could be strictly divided into what was immediate and real, and what was ungraspable or “just TV”. In the unbound world, though, everything is partly true, partly story.

The point of the show, as uneven as it is, is that survival may depend on an imagination big enough to contain both.

Runs until July 22