Lord of the Rings

Musical Stage Adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s classic novel
Book and lyrics: by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus
Music by: AR Rahman, Varttina with Christopjer Nightingale

Details: Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Catherine Street, London WC2
Tube: Covent garden
Running time: 3h

Middle Earth must be considered the hottest piece of real estate by producers. You can’t put UKP12.5 million into a production without confidence of a sound return. This is perhaps why writer Shaun McKenna played it safe for the London audience, with cardboard cut-out characters and impressive but predictable effects.

Tolkein’s fantasy world stayed safe within the imagination of the reader for almost fifty years. When Peter Jackson bought the world into ‘virtual’ reality, viewers were stunned by the scale and beauty of Middle Earth (and how attractive certain elves are on the big screen). By bringing The Lord Of The Rings into physical reality, I was hoping another dimension would be added to the story, i.e. what can theatre do that books and films can’t?

A more intimate relationship can be forged with a live audience, and this show establishes that as soon as you walk into the auditorium; hobbits are running amuck in the stalls, fireflies are twinkling overhead and half the theatre is in the dark grips of a forest, with twisted tree roots ensnaring the auditorium. During the interval, the Orcs descend and terrorise the audience. Whilst I appreciated the effort to plunge me into Middle Earth, it seemed a shame to reduce this fearsome, warring race to a gimmick who sniffed hungrily around the stalls like stray dogs. Rather than have me on the edge of my seat, I merely clutched protectively at my Maltesers.

Gandalf’s death sends chills through the theatre in the form of an almighty gust of wind. This spectacular end to the first act adds an original, three-dimensional aspect to the show. A similar effect is equally enjoyable at the end of the story, when Autumn leaves fall gently over the audience.

It is misleading to call this show a musical; most songs hide safely within the narrative either as an accompaniment or form of natural expression. For example, hobbits sing to lift their spirits as they march on with their mission, in much the same way the seven dwarves ‘heigh-ho’ on their way to work. The hobbit folk dances in the Shire and drunken ballads in the pub verge on village panto. However, given that Tolkein was a fan of the twee, I doubt he would have disapproved.

Though I was dreading an operatic sing-off between Gandalf and Saruman, the blockbuster had already given us a spectacular background score and it would have been interesting to use music as a way to explore the story and characters further. However, having chosen this path it would have been better to keep going rather than allow Broadway to clash in occasionally. The duet between Aragorn and Arwen would have felt out of place even if it hadn’t been a wet, pop-opera number.

The fight scenes are distinctly Japanese; beautifully choreographed with seriously impressive acrobatics. If you managed not to giggle when the tough gangs of West Side Story broke into pirouettes, you will probably be able to appreciate this stagecraft. For me, twinkle-toed orks held no fear and the menace of the battle scenes was lost.

The novel has been stripped to its bare bones, leaving a narrative that is rushed to an almost farcical extent, baring a resemblance in style to TomStoppard’s 15-minute Hamlet. Fans shouldn’t be offended by the radical changes to the story; they are a necessary evil and sensitive to the spirit of the original text.

Tolkein was mortified when his work was published in three volumes and Peter Jackson originally fought to have his film as one feature. The show arguably proves why the story should remain a trilogy; the human brain (and bladder) can only hold on to so much. Condensing this epic squeezes out all the weight and characterisation, leaving a children’s pictorial account of the story. It’s family friendly, but will fall flat for true fans of the novel.

– Isla MacFarlane

From the preview show:

If there was one word that came to mind during a sneak preview of the stage-version of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy trilogy last month, it was spectacle. Whether that’ll be a good thing or a bad thing is yet to be determined, but judging from audience reactions in Toronto, where the epic-length production premiered in March 2006, this project might be nothing more than a gaudy experiment with stage effects, costumes and stilts.

The most commonly asked question about the theatrical venture into Middle Earth was this: how is it possible to cram the action of three novels (which took director Peter Jackson more than nine hours in three separate films) into a format that won’t leave audience members bored, irritated or both?

The answer: it’s difficult. Dedicated Tolkienites are likely to shout Elvish curses of protest if they believe their cherished material was maimed, and those venturing into Frodo Baggins territory for the first time are prone to be baffled by the action.

That said, the Lord of the Rings play will no doubt be an extravagant performance. It relies on a 40-ton stage that, through a few miracles of modern theatre, can change shape on command. It uses hundreds of intricately-designed costumes. It requires handfuls of cast members of walk on six-metre stilts or to bound and flip on curved, bouncy shoes. There’ll always be something to watch, that’s for sure.

If you fancy a (fairly long) night with hobbits – although the script was significantly revised from its three-act, three and a half-hour Toronto version, there’s still a lot of Tolkien to pack in one musical – you can see the show at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in Covent Garden beginning 9 May. It’s hard to say what to expect, but whether you love it or hate it, at least you can say you watched a group of Orcs do gymnastics in springing footwear.

– Jill Hilbrenner