A Cute Reboot
In America, it's a formula considered by some to be partly responsible for the Wal-Marting of American theatre. An approach to theatre-making that can result in homogenised, interchangeable works being developed by bigger organisations eager for bums on seats, turned out on a theatrical conveyor belt, often at the expense of local initiatives and culture. From Broadway to the West End it’s a formula that has helped redefine the face of musical theatre in recent decades, one that is simple, successful, and addictive. Take a successful brand from another medium (film, literature, television, even an album will do), and adapt it for the stage to capitalise on the brand's previous success. Add a tonne of brilliant design work, some well-known names when possible, and as much marketing cash as you can throw at it and voilà: a much greater chance of success, critically as well as financially. And in a climate where funding is getting less and less, its a formula being engaged with more and more.
While there have always been stage adaptions from other mediums, this is something much more widespread. For a start, the ratio of adapted musicals to original works is staggering, as even a cursory glance at what’s running in New York or London will confirm. From Mamma Mia to Matilda, Sister Act to American Idiot, the list goes on and on and on, and is likely to do so for some considerable time to come. Because the formula ensures such productions are made attractive not just to the theatre going public, but to the loyal audience of the original brand, which often runs into the millions. A previously untapped audience for theatre who probably wouldn't go to theatre otherwise. It’s a formula Abbey Theatre co-directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren would appear to firmly endorse having programmed not one, but three adaptations from screen to stage for the coming year.
Kicking it all off is the stage adaptation of Emma Donoghue's “Room,” adapted by the writer herself, and co-produced by The Abbey Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East, in association with National Theatre of Scotland and Convent Garden Productions. Based on Donoghue’s award winning, 2010 novel, adapted for the screen in a 2015 Oscar winning production directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and starring Brie Larson, “Room” follows five-year-old Jack, and his mother, Joy, held captive in a room by the sinister Old Nick. Desperate to escape, Joy concocts a questionable plan, thrusting her and Jack out from the unsafe safety of their room and into the unpredictable real-world Jack never knew existed. Yet freedom comes at a cost, and both Jack and his mother must learn to renegotiate everything if they are to have any chance of surviving freedom.
If Donoghue’s novel was a searing, literary masterpiece and a genuine emotional rollercoaster ride, her stage adaptation of “Room” is more a case of careful emotional manipulation. Less like a taser gun and more like a mild case of static electricity, "Room" might carry a shock or two, but it's never too shocking. Indeed, for Donoghue, along with director Cora Bissett, as well as “Room’s” musical team of Bissett, Kathryn Joseph and Gavin Whitworth, the intention appears to be 'Keep It Cute', shifting "Room" from an over 18's experience to a 12's with adult guidance. If “Room” happens to stray into something genuinely dark or serious, there’s always its manipulative musical score, or second-rate songs, to sentimentalise it all safely away and help to keep all the creepy at bay. Someone might get raped, but she can always sing her mother-love song of defiance as its happening. It might make for weaker theatre, but it plays better by disturbing less, making it much more accessible to a wider audience.
“Room’s” cast are definitive proof that you should never work with children, for Taye Kassim Junaid-Evans as Jack (played on alternate nights by Darmani Eboji and Harrison Wilding) steals most of the scenes. Showing hints of Moone Boy at times, Fela Lufadeju as Big Jack, delivers a credible performance, as does Witney White as Ma. Yet both rely heavily on channeling children's TV presenters and leave a little to be desired vocally during several songs. Lucy Tregear as the endlessly hugging Grandma, and Stephen Casey as the emotionally wrecked, histrionic Grandpa, do what they have to do and do it well. To call either a character would be a stretch, both are there simply to push some emotional buttons, along with Janet Kumah as the Policewoman and interviewer, who struggles to be heard over the soundtrack during the interview. Liam McKenna’s subtle interpretation of Old Nick might sidle up to creepy, but it never quiet gets there, and never comes anywhere near to being terrifying.
Yet where “Room” is an unqualified success is in its extraordinary design, particularly during the first half, evoking a mesmerising sense of a children’s TV universe. A device that richly supports Jack’s internal, childish musings, but one that does little to add to “Room’s” absent, and much needed, sense of genuine horror and anguish. Designer Lily Arnold does outstanding work, as do video designer Andrzej Goulding, and lighting designer David Plater, with both dove tailing perfectly into Arnold’s complex design. If sightlines suffer on occasion, it's worth the price, for “Room” delivers a visually stunning masterclass.
For those who enjoy Facebook stories of cuddly animals snatched from the jaws of danger, “Room” will most likely appeal. For those who like a little more meat on the bone, or adored Donoghue’s extraordinary novel, or Abrahamson’s superlative film version, the saccharine quality of this adaptation might be a little too sweet and have them reaching for an insulin shot. Peter Brook would certainly call this Deadly Theatre, if you care to subscribe to such ideas. It could certainly be argued that “Room” is a fine example of what might be called Corporate Theatre. Theatre of the brand and the rebrand, the audience focus group, the safer bet, popular hit, smartly marketed, bums on seats as the only real definition of success kind of theatre. Nothing wrong you might say, just look at Once, which went on to win Tony awards. Yet others would say it's becoming all pervasive, held up as the only model in town when there are others worth looking at. Either way, with little or no funding available to support original, riskier endeavours, adaptations are likely to continue for some time. Yet, as adaptations go, the once dark “Room,” offers up a dubious piece of musical theatre cuteness, one that is visually impressive but very little else.
“Room” by Emma Donoghue, co-produced by The Abbey Theatre and Theatre Royal Stratford East, in association with National Theatre of Scotland and Convent Garden Productions, runs at The Abbey Theatre until July 22nd.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre