Adapted from her novel by Emma Donoghue with music and lyrics by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph
Theatre Royal Stratford East and Abbey Theatre, Dublin co-production, in association with National Theatre of Scotland and Covent Garden productions
Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack Credit: Scott Rylander
Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack, Harrison Wilding as Little Jack and Witney White as Ma Credit: Scott Rylander
Witney White as Ma Credit: Scott Rylander
Witney White as Ma and Liam McKenna as Old Nick Credit: Scott Rylander

I came to this production not knowing what it was about. I had not read Emma Donoghue’s novel or seen the film version, which she also scripted. I think a play should tell its audience what they need to know not expect them to pre-research it (unless they provide such information with the ticket).

Part of the fascination of this play is the way that it gradually makes you aware of the situation and what follows from it. So, in case you don’t want to read on as I give the whole thing away, let me first tell you that Cora Bissett’s production is sensitively acted and beautifully mounted (designed by Lily Arnold with video contributions from Andrzej Goulding and effective use of a revolve).

It is about a boy about to reach his fifth birthday, a boy who has never been outside the room he lives in. It is a room that has no windows, except for a skylight: Jack’s only knowledge of outside it is what he sees on television, a world he doesn’t think is real.

He has been born here, raised here, by his Ma whose been confined here for seven years, abducted when a teenager by the man whose sexual needs she has to service to get the food and other things he brings them. She doesn’t know the combination that can unlock the door: they are trapped here.

It’s Jack’s story. Little Jack is played by Harrison Wilding (a touching performance on press night), who shares the role with Darmani Eboji and Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans, but we have to get inside his head so there is also Big Jack (Fela Lufadeju), a more grown-up version, always present to articulate his feelings.

It is a device that is effectively established as the play begins, but even before that we’ve seen a birds-eye image through the skylight, looking down upon their prison, projected on the gauze with its juvenile drawings that forms a front cloth.

Jack is whom Ma lives for, devoted to keeping him happy with games and stories, healthy with exercises that include a screaming session (not just to let off steam but in the hope someone may hear them). It is not until you wonder why he can’t have candles on the birthday cake she had made him that you begin to realise they are prisoners.

Jack makes friends of inanimate objects, wishes them all good morning, sleeps in the wardrobe, a ‘safe’ place where he hides when the man they call Old Nick (Liam McKenna) makes a visit.

They do escape; Ma finds a ruse that gets Jack out in to the real world that he doesn’t know exists. It is difficult to credit that it would work and wisely it isn’t all enacted, but then we share Jack’s reaction to a world where even going up and down stairs is an unfamiliar challenge, where other people have to be encountered.

It is done with great sensitivity, both Jacks expressive. Grandparents, police, doctors (the boy hasn’t had the usual exposure to infections) are perhaps a little two-dimensional, but at first that’s how Jack sees them.

Some songs have been inserted, presumably to provide space for Ma to express feelings. They don’t sit very naturally and their lyrics are not always audible, which makes them less effective; a straight soliloquy might connect more directly but Witney White’s excellent Ma delivers them with feeling.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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