London audiences will be the first in North America to experience the stage adaptation of Room, the runaway international bestselling novel and Academy-Award-nominated film, when the play opens at the Grand Theatre in March 2020.
That the North American stage premiere should be held here is a tip of the hat to her adopted city by the novelist, Emma Donoghue. She lives in London and wrote the book here, as she puts it, in a variety of coffee shops and recreational facilities while being a busy working mom. She lists her writing locations like a Trip Advisor rating of where to best to snag a free table in the city: “The Little Red Roaster on Wortley, Covent Garden Market, the YMCA lobby, the Fred Landon branch library, the Weldon Library and the tennis bubble at Western, Forest City Gymnastics, Earl Nichols skating arena, and various park benches and parking lots,” she admits with candor.
Interestingly, another London mom is the inspiration for the actor playing the aptly named lead role of Ma. Alexis Gordon, a London born and raised actor with Grand, Stratford and Shaw credits, says that she credits her own mother for their shared deep connection with Room, the novel.
“My mom had given me the book to read as soon as it came out in 2010, excited that Emma [Donoghue] lived in London. Both my mom and I read it quickly. We both cried while reading it, and loved it. So when I told my mom I was auditioning she was very excited. It felt very personal for me to get the role of Ma, since it was such a shared experience for my mom and I just under a decade ago,” says Gordon.
Room has three iterations: book, film, and play. Donoghue says, in simple terms, the book is the most psychological, the film is the most realistic, the play is the most dramatic.
The world premiere of Room was co-produced by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (Donoghue’s hometown) and Theatre Royal Stratford East, in 2017. It was directed by Cora Bissett, who will also direct the Canadian production. Donoghue says, “It’s pretty much the same play we produced in England, Scotland and Ireland in 2017, but we’re enjoying the opportunity to workshop it to improve anything we weren’t a hundred percent happy with, and I’ve adapted the language to a Canadian setting.” After the Grand run, the play moves to Toronto with Mirvish Productions.
Room is the dark tale of Ma, who was kidnapped and held captive as a teenager. She endures sexual violence and gives birth to her son, who is raised in captivity. The pair survive together for years in the room. Donoghue says the dramatic story is perfectly suited for the stage. “I focused on the very theatrical premise at the heart of Room: two people in a limited space, with limited resources, making things up — giving meaning to their time, creating ritual and fun out of blankness. What Ma and Jack do is turn their imprisonment into theatre, casting themselves as heroes rather than victims,” she says. Creating the character has given Donoghue time to reflect on her own parenting. While some may think of Room as a tragic tale, Donoghue found it inspiring. “Sometimes I feel I’m not much of a mother compared with Ma, though — it’s hard to live up to her!”
Some may be surprised to learn that the play has a musical element. Donoghue and Gordon say that music is a way for the actors to release intense emotions. “There won’t be big musical numbers with dancing,” says Gordon. “It’s more an elevation of emotion — when words aren’t enough to express how you’re feeling, you sing. I’m looking forward to working with Cora Bissett (the director who also wrote the music with Kathryn Joseph) and exploring that!” Donoghue says the singing will allow the role of Ma to “release all the things she has to hide from Jack and somehow to push emotion to a new level of intensity.” Donoghue was involved in discussions about where the songs would be placed and what they would do for the storyline. She says, “There’s a sort of rule for theatre that involves music — say it or sing it, not both — so we had to make sure the songs would help tell the story rather than just fleshing it out.”
Gordon is a talented singer with a string of musical theatre productions including Guys and Dolls, The Sound of Music and Carousel at Stratford; Brigadoon at Shaw; Christmas Carol and Mary Poppins at the Grand. Room will take her to a darker stage, albeit still with singing. “I believe they’re calling Room a play with music. It is a bit of a different structure than your straightforward musical theatre piece,” says Gordon.
Gordon says she is excited and challenged to follow in the footsteps of some famous actors who have taken on the role of Ma, including Brie Larson, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal. Gordon is set to bring her own vision of the role, based on research and experiences, to create a new Ma.
“Sort of in a similar way, I’ve played a handful of roles in classic musical theatre that have a great following, based on their famous movie version and audiences growing up with them (Guys & Dolls, Carousel, Brigadoon, etc.). I try not to base my own performances or portrayals on the movies, because I can’t be those actresses and do what they did. It has to be genuine and come from me to translate the role best,” says Gordon.
Room runs from March 13, 2020 (previews begin March 10) until March 28. It is not recommended for young children. It will then run April 4 to 26 at the CAA Theatre in Toronto, with the same cast.
A special event for book clubs will be held at the Grand Theatre with Emma Donoghue on February 10, 6:30–9 pm. She will discuss her novel Room as well as the upcoming play with lead actor Alexis Gordon. Watch the Grand website (grandtheatre.com) for more details.