Review: ROOM is a Heartwarming, Heart-Wrenching Adaptation That Feels Right at Home On Stage

Mirvish presents ROOM, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue.

By: Apr. 16, 2022
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Review: ROOM is a Heartwarming, Heart-Wrenching Adaptation That Feels Right at Home On Stage

Content warning: This review contains mention of sexual assault.

Please note that this review contains spoilers for Mirvish's ROOM.

By all intents and purposes, ROOM should be a near-impossible story to tell on stage. The graphic subject matter makes for a tough watch at times and with so much resting on a relatively small cast, it'd be easy to understand if there were shortcomings in how the book-turned-film-turned-play translated to the stage.

Luckily for audiences, Mirvish's production of ROOM, directed by Cora Bissett, handles those challenges with relative ease.

Adapted for the stage by Emma Donoghue, the writer of the novel, ROOM is a 2-act spectacle full of imaginative creative choices, heart wrenching performances, and original music. While not a musical, this play with songs runs just over two hours in length and details the harrowing experience of Ma (Alexis Gordon) and her son Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid, with Levi Dombokah alternating).

Their situation is nothing short of horrific; seven years ago, Ma was kidnapped by 'Old Nick' (Ashley Wright) as a university student. When the play starts off she's still trapped in 'Room', now with her 5-year-old son Jack. To Ma, 'Room' is a living nightmare. She is frequently raped by Old Nick, and faces the stress of struggling to care for her son all alone in a tiny space equipped with only the barest of survival essentials.

Where this production excels most is in contrasting the frightening reality of the situation with Jack's perspective. He's known nothing except 'Room' and Ma, and the audience sees both as inherently connected because of it. The use of projections of children's drawings (projection design by Andrzej Goulding) help bring Jack's imaginative world to life, and aids in Ma's storytelling effectively.

The first act focuses on Ma and Jack in 'Room', with warm tones and household objects scattered around making it feel almost homey (set and costume design by Lily Arnold). The fact that it's really a prison is unveiled through Gordon's portrayal of an unravelling, desperate Ma; the rush to input codes to try and unlock the door after Jack's gone to bed, the stress of illness, and more come across so authentically in her performance. Duncan-Reid's presence exceeds his small frame - he brings all the wonder, attitude and straightforwardness of an imaginative 5-year-old to the role in a way that makes you forget that you're actually watching an actor.

Another key player in ROOM is Jack's alter-ego, for lack of a better term. SuperJack (Brandon Michael Arrington) is the child's way of expressing his inner thoughts; an ingenious way to reduce the load of such heavy subject matter on a young actor. While the concept doesn't always work with the story, SuperJack never feels out of place, likely due to Arrington's charm and energy.

The first act is chock-full of impactful moments; Gordon delivers a number of powerful ballads, and while the songwriting (songs and music by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Johnson) is fairly straightforward, it gets the message across easily enough. Clever use of sounds from 'Room' like banging pots serve as the backbone of each songs' instrumentation (music composed by Gavin Whitworth), and are a clever tie-in to the recycled nature of most things in 'Room'. Lighting (lighting design by Bonnie Beecher) around the edges of 'Room' create striking silhouettes when the set rotates - literally - to show Jack hiding in the wardrobe during an assault on Ma by Old Nick (intimacy and fight direction by Siobhan Richardson makes for a stomach-churning scene that's as powerful as it is terrifying).

For as intense as the first act is right through to the escape (which was wisely shown from Ma's perspective, leaving everything up in the air and piling on the tension to the max), the second act struggles to maintain the momentum. It begins with Ma and Jack, now free from 'Room' and herded through a series of police interrogations and hospital procedures, as they struggle to integrate into the world; Ma once again, and Jack for the first time. Both Gordon and Duncan-Reid are stellar throughout, but Duncan-Reid and Arrington especially shine as we see the world, with all its nonsensical or confusing parts, for the first time through Jack's eyes.

Grandma (Tracy Ferencz) and Grandpa (Stewart Arnott) are integral parts of the second act as Ma reunites with her parents and struggles to cope with her trauma; both Ferencz and Arnott do a good job of taking on some of the plot's heaviness and carving out a few sweet moments; Arnott's portrayal of Grandpa's relationship with Jack especially. Unfortunately, given the high intensity of the first act with it's life-or-death stakes and the deep worldbuilding done to give 'Room' a personality of its own, the cold, stark sets of the second act and a wider mix of problems to be solved struggle to keep up with the pace set earlier in the performance. There's still great payoff with a few beautiful moments sprinkled throughout, though, and an ending that felt extremely right.

Despite the frightening premise, series of eleven o'clock numbers, and a few awkwardly paced moments in the second act, ROOM is at its core an emotional piece. Whether you end up shedding tears, hugging your loved ones a bit tighter, or whatever else, it'd be hard to leave ROOM exactly as you were when you entered.


Mirvish's ROOM runs through May 8 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St W, Toronto, ON

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.mirvish.com/shows/room

Photo credit: Dahlia Katz



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