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review

From left, Alexis Gordon, Lucien Duncan-Reid and Brandon Michael Arrington in Room at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.Dahlia Katz/Mirvish

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  • Title: Room
  • Written by: Emma Donoghue
  • Songs by: Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph
  • Director: Cora Bissett
  • Actors: Alexis Gordon, Brandon Michael Arrington
  • Company: David Mirvish presents a co-production of the Grand Theatre and Covent Garden Productions
  • Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To May 8
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks and proof of vaccination required

It doesn’t feel quite right to call Room a theatrical adaptation of a book.

Instead, let’s call the intense, uncompromising show that’s on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto the most up-to-date version of Emma Donoghue’s ever-evolving artistic project about a boy and his mother held captive.

After all, the Irish-Canadian writer not only penned the bestselling 2010 novel Room, but also the Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 2015 film Room, and is now the playwright of this play with music of the same name.

This remains her own Room – just one with a different view on the story.

You probably know the general outline of the plot at this point.

Five-year-old Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid, who is alternating with Levi Dombokah in the role) has spent his entire life in a single room with his Ma (Stratford and Shaw Festival regular Alexis Gordon, riveting in the first act). As a result, “room” is the world to him and everything in it has special meaning.

A lamp, a spoon, toys made out of trash, the wardrobe he sleeps in all develop personalities in the way objects can in childhood, but accentuated because of his shut-in situation.

Jack does not understand that he and his mother are imprisoned in a shed by the frequent visitor he calls Old Nick (Ashley Wright), and certainly not that he is the product of his mother’s rape by her captor. His buoyant acceptance and even embrace of an objectively horrific situation is what makes Donoghue’s story one that readers and audiences have been intrigued by for over a decade now and willing to look at rather than turn away from.

This stage incarnation of Room was originally produced overseas five years ago. It has been further workshopped for this North American premiere, which took place after a long pandemic delay at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., last month and has now arrived in Toronto through Mirvish Productions.

There are two major ways in which Room has changed for the stage.

The first is that Jack is played by both a child actor and an adult actor. The latter is billed as SuperJack (Brandon Michael Arrington, complex, never cloying) and he speaks Jack’s inner monologues. This no doubt takes necessary pressure off the young actors – but it never feels like a mere device and does not seem strange at all after a few minutes of Scottish director Cora Bissett’s production.

The second is that Ma and SuperJack sing songs. These are infrequent and, instead of being used to further plot in the traditional musical theatre sense, they function as moments of escape, for the characters from their situation, and for the audience from the tension. (Written by Bissett with Kathryn Joseph, the songs, oddly but not unpleasantly, have a 1990s grunge feel.)

Alexis Gordon, Lucien Duncan-Reid, and Brandon Michael Arrington in a scene from Room.Dahlia Katz/Mirvish

I suppose I should all-caps SPOILER ALERT before writing that Ma and Jack do eventually get out of the shed. I don’t really consider this a spoiler, however, as I would be quite reluctant to attend a play where this wasn’t the case.

If the first act of the play is essentially a stage thriller, as intense as single-setting classics by Patrick Hamilton such as Rope and Gaslight, the second act explores the difficulties Ma and Jack face adjusting or readjusting to the outside world and has a less clear dramatic shape.

Jack has an intense desire to go back to his familiar “room,” while Ma finds she has not escaped her trauma at all – and realizes the idea of escape can now only lead her to one other place. (And, no, while it might make for a good headline, none of this is particularly comparable to our current situation coming out of pandemic isolation.)

I found the songs really necessary to connect to this second half of Room as Gordon’s performance becomes quite hard-edged and the scenes Donoghue has penned are both stark and blunt – and depict a world (or Ma and Jack’s view of it?) in which almost everyone treat others as objects, just like Old Nick.

The design is starker, too, in the second half: A detailed, rotating three-walled room is replaced with what looks like a giant grey revolving door.

The implication, I would guess, of the indistinct rooms that spin by is that Jack and possibly Ma find the outside world overwhelming and so can’t take in its colours. But, if that is indeed the concept, it doesn’t quite gel – and it’s hard to shake the impression that the show ran out of directorial steam and perhaps design budget halfway through.

I wonder if I would have found the look more appropriate on the stage of the smaller and more industrial CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic), for which it was originally designed.

Mirvish Productions promoted Room to the Princess of Wales and its mainstage season after the set was built – and I hesitate to be critical of a decision made in response to issues related to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, I did overhear some spectators who were sitting too far to the side of the larger theatre grumbling about sight lines at intermission – something to be aware of when purchasing tickets to this harrowing and ambitious production.

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