The Lord of The Rings (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), a new musical based on the JRR Tolkein books, is a strange beast, more a play with music, as the songs are mostly decorative, and certainly not the prime drivers of the convoluted plot. The show is said to have cost over £12 million to produce, and it seemed like the very model of a big brash spectacular show with all the reliable theatrical effects brought out to dazzle theatregoers into appreciative submission; smoke, mirrors, wind, winches, lights and all. Apart from the impressive multi platform revolving stage, the money seems to have been spent on a large cast and their lavish costumes, indeed there are over 50 performers listed in the programme, this is traditional theatrical spectacle at heart.
I have to say that I found parts of the show rather funny (when they were trying to be serious) and quite banal, the massive story of the books has been cut right down to the bare bones in order to make this a viable evening, not a Wagner style marathon, but even then attention begins to drift as we near the three hour mark (and certainly it is very helpful to know the story in advance).
We enter the auditorium with Hobbits running around onstage and into the stalls, excitedly trying to catch fireflies. The design motif of intertwined tree branches comes out of the stage and rises all the way up to the ceiling, either side of the stage it fills up several of the boxes. Then the Hobbits start a folk dance and the show proper begins with a commanding scene-setting voice over. We are introduced to Frodo and his chums happy in their rural obscurity, but out of the blue Gandalf the Grey (Malcolm Storry), a wise wizard, arrives at Frodo’s home, telling him of the dangers of the ring which his uncle had left him; in the wrong hands its power will become pure evil. If you don’t know the story from then on you probably haven’t been alive for the past few years, so I needn't go into it much further, suffice to say that there is one ring to rule them all, it must be got rid of and the journey to get rid of it is perilous to say the least. Over the course of this journey we get to meet all kinds of creatures and peoples, one of the most amusing and endearing being Pippin, a fellow hobbit and friend of Frodo’s who follows him (along with Sam, Frodo’s gardener/best buddy and Merry, Pippin’s best friend) on his quest to destroy the ring. Pippin, played sublimely by Owen Sharpe, is like a cross between Truman Capote and Violet Elizabeth from Just William. He is so hilariously funny that merely his presence onstage nearly reduced me to tears. To be honest the other Hobbits, including Frodo (James Loye), are a rather anodyne bunch, only Pippin would really merit a party invitation. The wandering Hobbits do perform a rather natty dance at a pub for ‘big folks’ on their journey, ending in everyone sitting in a line across the huge Drury lane stage and mimicking the bizarre hand and leg movements of the Hobbits, which is great fun and visually striking.
Then we meet some Elves, they are a funny lot who constantly perform jerky hand gestures, like a primitive sign language, whilst speaking and especially whilst singing. Is director Matthew Warchus trying to be bold and develop a new visual/physical language for musical theatre? Maybe, but it just doesn’t wash when the show feels faintly like a spoof Nordic musical, or (when the romantic songs come out) a generic swirling-mist pop diva entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. The Queen of some (possibly all) of the Elves is called Galadriel, The Lady of Lothlorien (Laura Michelle Kelly), she and her people look like an Aryan version of a Native American tribe and constantly sing a power pop ballad about ‘Loth-lorry-en’ and how all round wonderful it is. She and her people also enjoy being hoisted up above the stage as they sing, perhaps so we can see their lovely hand language more clearly.
Back to the story, and Saruman (Brian Protheroe, with a comic Nordic accent straight from central casting) was a good wizard, but Gandalf sees that he has come to work with the Dark Lord (the confusingly named and unseen Sauron), so Saruman unleashes his terrifying Orcs on Gandalf. Orcs are evil horrid black creatures, who in this production have little crutches to dance on or big boots to bounce on. They don’t seem that scary on the stage, but when they rampage in the aisle intimidating the audience, they seem slightly more menacing. There are also a tribe of tree people on stilts who help the Hobbits in their noble quest, and Gollum, the evil former possessor of the ring, who tries to have Frodo fed to a giant spider. Both Gollum and the spider are highlights of the evening, with the former suffering from hyperactive split personality disorder and the latter being a huge beast wonderfully conjured by the designer in the simplest, but most effective way possible.
The music is just as varied as the cast of characters. Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman (best known here for Bombay Dreams) is joined by Finnish folk group Varttina (with co-orchestration by Christopher Nightingale). This makes for an evening of mixed music, the Hobbit songs were mostly folk numbers and the romantic tunes were in a more forgettable pop style. Unfortunately none of the lyrics (by Warchus and Shaun McKenna) were particularly brilliant, witty or memorable. Unlike the design, by Rob Howell, and special effects design by Gregory Meeh, which do stay with you, especially the arresting costumes and general stage picture and impressive set piece effects lingering in the mind. Obviously the director’s marshalling of his large company helps, but I never felt the choreography or movement was particularly interesting or original, just a continuation of the spectacle, which for this piece and its purpose is quite justified. Much the same goes for the acting, a broad brush approach is necessary in a show as a broad as this, but the performances on the whole were committed and decent.
If you go expecting fine storytelling, nuanced acting or memorable music, Lord of the Rings is not for you. If you can enjoy the show as the (slightly overlong) spectacle that it is, and have a sense of fun about it, you should have a satisfying evening.