Thursday 22 February 2018

'Room' triumphs on the boards


Katy Hayes

First it was a much-garlanded bestselling novel, then an Oscar-winning film, and now it's a stunning musical stage show. The story is obviously the same each time: Ma is kidnapped at 19 and held as a sex-slave in a shed, where she gives birth to Jack and raises him to the age of five. But in each reincarnation, the emphasis is somewhat different. Emma Donoghue's stage adaptation is brilliantly theatrical. Ma tries to protect herself and her child from a terrible reality by creating a world of stories and make-believe.

Five-year-old Jack is split into two, played by a young boy and also by a grown man. This is a crucial device to mirror the novel's great strength, the boy's voice. But it simultaneously alleviates the pressure on not only the child actor, but also on the audience watching a child actor, especially in the more traumatic scenes.

Director Cora Bissett hasn't flinched from depicting the violence - this is a story about a woman who is kidnapped and raped after all. But a terrific theatrical method is found to convey the events - Ma mentally leaves her body and absents herself while her captor, Old Nick, does his thing. The bedspring creaks are counted by the child hiding in the wardrobe. This device is both theatrically and psychologically inspired. The added songs, created by Bissett and Kathryn Joseph, enhance moments of intense emotion - musical theatre does this better than any other genre.

Design by Lily Arnold is another triumph. The room in Act One is created realistically, full of clutter, its outline lit with white striplight. When Old Nick comes in for his visits, the room revolves, and we see Jack hiding in the wardrobe from the other side - a clever designer's response to the boy's perspective in the story. Terrific video designs by Andrzej Goulding add another dimension and bring texture to the world. It's a high-tech production, a style rarely seen in Ireland, but the performances have an even higher wattage and easily dominate the effects.

Witney White's Ma is wonderfully complex. Her spiky unpleasantness in Act Two is so moving and her emotional range so convincing, the damage done to her is palpable. Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans, who played Little Jack on opening night, was simply the heart of the show. And Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack suggests an advanced-for-his-years child, but also the adult that he will eventually become. The role of Grandpa is foregrounded in this version of the story. He becomes an emotional focus point in Act Two as he struggles with what has happened to his daughter and initially fails to accept his grandson. His difficulty is portrayed by Stephen Casey with great power.

This production originated in the Theatre Royal Stratford East and is an Abbey Theatre co-production. Don't miss it.



Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, July 6 — 15

Frank McCourt’s Limerick-set novel was a bestselling sensation. Local and loyal, the musical version opens there, before Pat Moylan’s production storms up to Dublin to take over the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.


Peacock Theatre, Dublin, July 5 — 15

Dael Orlandersmith, American poet and actor from East Harlem, performs her semi-autobiographical 80 minute monologue which explores a daughter’s troubled relationship with her mother.


Theatre Royal, Waterford, until July 21

Carrie Crowley performs Footfalls; Arthur Riordan performs Krapp’s Last Tape. Two Samuel Beckett plays to soothe your weary brow on a summer’s evening from two strong performers.

Tackling identity and selfhood

Review: Futureproof, Project Arts Centre, until July 1

A troupe of theatrical freaks greet you in Lynda Radley's strange drama, first produced in Scotland in 2011 and received its Irish première at Cork's Everyman theatre last month. There is the fattest man in the world; a bearded, armless Countess Marketa; George/Georgina, who is half-man, half-woman, split down the middle; a mute mermaid, and a pair of conjoined twins.

Riley is the impresario in charge and they are losing money. Becoming more ordinary is the way to bring in the crowds. Thus, they must eradicate their differences, tone down their 'freakishness'. Some resist, others change, and some are damaged beyond repair by the process.

The play is Beckettian in tone, concerned with the notion of identity and selfhood, and confronting your own peculiarities. It raises the fear of being forced into ordinariness.

Even to describe this otherworld play in those terms, to describe its action, is to force it to conform to a logical shape it simply doesn't acknowledge. Tom Creed directs its absurdist structure with perfect judgment, accumulating tension and counterpoints, creating momentum and building to a crisis.

Gerard Byrne impresses as the fat man, Tiny, who undergoes a theatrical version of Operation Transformation. Michael Glenn Murphy, as Riley the impresario, shines in his sequinned jacket. But it is Amy Conroy as George/Georgina, who finally dominates the stage. Her authoritative presence, and her movement to change from being half-man/half-woman into an integrated person containing both genders, points to a resolution of sorts. Change, yes, but on the individual's own terms.

The Everyman continues to impress in its engagement with contemporary Irish playwriting. This absurdist show will not be to everybody's taste, but it is compelling and consistently intriguing. The hour and 45 minutes flashes by, and if it doesn't offer any pat answers or neat narrative sweeteners, it does give you a delicious brain buzz.

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