David Mirvish, Grand Theater (ON) & Covent Garden Productions (UK) / Room, adapted for the stage by Emma Donoghue (from her novel), songs by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, directed by Cora Bissett, Princess of Wales Theater, Apr . 5 to May 8. Tickets available here.
Why, oh why, must every book or film be turned into a musical?
Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue’s much-heralded 2010 novel Room made the transition to a multi-nominated 2015 movie, with a script by the writer, and both were memorable. Alas, the transition to the stage, also written by Donoghue, misses the mark – the reason being the dreary and infrequent songs that slow the action down. Devoid of the musical component, Room could be a terrific stage play, right up there with the original novel and film.
What is really maddening is the fact that this adaptation for the theater has so much going for it, particularly in the brilliant way Donoghue presents the heart of the novel.
For those unfamiliar with the material, Room introduces us to Ma (Alexis Gordon) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid). When she was 19, Ma was kidnapped by the man they call Old Nick (Ashley Wright), and Jack is the product of that ongoing sexual assault. The only life Jack has ever known is their prison room, yet, he manages to be a young boy of immense imagination, and the novel is told from his perspective, or what Donoghue calls in the program notes, “Jack’s buoyant world-creating voice ”.
To portray that all-important inner voice for the stage production, Donoghue, in a brilliant theater coup, added in the character of SuperJack (Brandon Michael Arrington), an adult actor who can cope with long stretches of dialogue more easily than a child .
The two Jacks are linked by costume and choreography. They are dressed the same, and much of the time, they perform synchronized movement, like a tag team. Renown Canadian choreographer Linda Garneau is credited as a movement coach. It is a concept that really, really works in bringing the novel to the stage. We should also mention Andrzej Goulding’s child-art projections, which appear on the walls of Room and mirror Jack’s musings.
Donoghue could have ended her novel with the rescue of Ma and Jack but she had much more to say, and it is very dark. The second act follows the trials and tribulations of life after Room for both Jack and Ma. The adjustment is traumatic.
The new characters in their lives are Grandpa (Stewart Arnott, who also plays the Doctor), Grandma (Tracey Ferencz), with Police / Interviewer / Popcorn Server (Shannon Taylor) rounding out the cast. Interestingly, Donoghue stripped down the characters for the stage version, eliminating, for example, Grandma’s new partner Leo.
The cast is Canadian, and features some fairly well-known actors who all acquit themselves well. The main players, on which the stage play rests, namely Gordon, Duncan-Reid and Arrington, give particularly strong performances, although at times the latter two lost words. There are two important relationships here that have to work – mother and son, and Jack and SuperJack – and there is a seamless symbiosis between them, with delightful child actor Duncan-Reid being the lynchpin.
This musical version first premiered in Britain, and the bulk of theatrical values come from that production. There also seems to be a Scottish connection, probably because director / song-writer Cora Bissett, who worked with Donoghue on the adaptation, is Scottish. There are two token Canadian contributors, however. Bonnie Beecher has produced some quite dazzling lighting effects, while John Gzowski has woven together an effective soundscape.
Set and costume designer Lily Arnold created two very different environments. Act one is the faithful realistic rendering of Room that also revolves to show us both Jacks in their hideaway closet.
For the second act, Arnold went abstract in a clever way. Three large partitions continuously keep revolving, with each turn revealing a new locale represented by a simple prop. Each partition has doors that the actors pass through, and the constant movement of the set and actors evokes the whirlwind of new experiences that are happening to Jack and Ma to devastating effect.
Gavin Whitworth wrote the original music, and I assume that means the cinematic score that appears under the action from time to time. His contribution should have been the only musical component.
Which brings us to the songs by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, performed by Ma and sometimes SuperJack, and which are only sung at moments of intense inner angst. Bissett in her program notes calls them “aching songs of desperation and hope; songs of survival ”. Gordon as Ma, in particular, has a fabulous voice that can belt out a tune, but when the songs all start to sound the same, they lose their potency.
Bissett is certainly an efficient director, especially in the second act, with its whirligig of movement. Her stage action is simple and effective, which allows the characters to be front and center. I particularly liked her tasteful handling of the Ma / Old Nick encounters.
Just how did the songs impact the show for me? As mentioned before, they happen erratically, so just as I was getting caught up in the action, a song would pop up, and throw off the rhythm. There really should have been more songs to turn Room into a real musical, rather than a haphazard one, or, preferably, they should have been left entirely.
I do have a lingering thought, though. Pre-pandemic, Room was originally slated for the much smaller CAA Theater. I really think it would have worked better in a more intimate space. Even the songs might have worked.
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