Lord of the Rings at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings
Theatre Royal Drury Lane

At last I have managed to get to see Lord of the Rings on stage. 3 hours long in 3 acts with a 20 minute interval. I was like many (but not all) who was there to see just ‘how they do it.’

J. R. R. Tolkein embarked on writing the epic work in stages (between 1937 and 1949) against a background of totalitarianism (a specially bred Orc army), industrial power leading to world war (the end of the ‘Golden Age’) and the allied victory over a common enemy (the battle at the Black Gate of Mordor.) But Tolkein was also conscious that he wanted to record a ‘very English’ kind of mythology similar to European mythologies such as Norse (pantheon of the gods), Anglo-Saxon (Beowulf) or even making reference to the Germanic (Nibelungenlied or the Ring Cycle.) It is clear that the Ring refers to the notion of absolute power the premise being that anyone who seeks to gain absolute worldly power will inevitably be corrupted by it.

To create a performance of an epic-fantasy spanning nine hours and fit for a theatre audience is not inconceivable (Richard Wagner’s ‘The Ring cycle’ has been playing since 1876) but the truly epic enormity of the project (in both a Brechtian sense and also  in a very practical sense) has, until now, been impossible to tackle.

Full-length stage musical adaptations of each of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003) were produced in Cincinnati, Ohio. These first productions suffered from poor funding and were not successful. Subsequent productions were better received and these inspired the London-based theatre producer Kevin Wallace and his partner, Saul Zaentz (best picture Oscars for and Amadeus 1984, as well as for The English Patient 1996,) stage and film rights-holder and producer of the animated film version of 1978 — in association with Toronto theatre-owner David Mirvish and concert promoter Michael Cohl, to produce the stage musical adaptation in 2006. The book and lyrics were written by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus, and the music was by A. R. Rahman (Bombay Dreams 2002) and Finnish folk-music band Värttinä, collaborating with Christopher Nightingale.

This original production (for Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre,) was promoted as a spectacle of unusual scale. But the size and high-cost of the production, mixed with some very poor reviews, led to the collapse of the project after only 6 months. The writers and producers went back to the drawing-board and came up with a concept that was slightly shorter, more enthusiastic and very cautious (with the longest ‘preview period’ ever attempted in British theatre. This final product (costing in excess of £25 million) is the most ambitious and expensive theatre production ever to have been attempted outside Las Vegas.

What’s it like? The production starts promptly (you are told to get into your seats 15 minutes early) and you go straight to Middle Earth (the Shires to be exact.) The naturalistic woodland setting adds mystery and extra dimension to the stage. The music is folksy and cheerful (dramatic and operatic when the mood requires) and, although not really remarkable or memorable, it provides ample emotional background and occasional leitmotifs.

The real treats were the “how will they do it?” moments. I won’t spoil it for you but Gandalf’s fight at the bridge of Khazad-dûm and the monster at the Lair of Shelob were two of the most memorable and truly satisfying scenes I have ever witnessed in a musical theatre production.

The use of real deus ex machina (elves tend to literally drop in and float back up heavenwards) and the acrobatic assaults by the armies of orcs constantly add thrills to proceedings. You never feel bored- I was at the edge of my seat all the way through.

What did they miss out? Well, I am pretty sure that most female members of the audience were pleased that the big set-piece battle scenes were not there. These take up a huge proportion of the Peter Jackson films. Also, there are no epic poems and verse. The musical tends to take the big motifs (Elves looking after the Hobbits or the ‘smallness’ and ‘cheerfulness’ of the Hobbits in relation to Humans) and runs with these. Obviously, all the major plot elements are still there but there is no sign of ‘wormtongue’ who should have been corrupting King Théoden and there was no Tom Bombadil. ‘Fatty’ Bolger seemed to be missing and the Ringwraiths seemed to be able to find the Hobbits without the decoy scene.

I was pleased to see so may young people at the show. The films and the games have made Middle Earth seem real to a whole new set of fans. This ‘computer generation’ seemed to enjoy the theatrical production as much as the older ‘readers’. All-in-all, hugely enjoyable fun and very good value for money.

Arwen is played by Rosalie Craig (Doctors, Grease Monkeys etc)
Gandlaf by Malcolm Storry (Heartbeat, Midsomer Murders etc.)
Galadriel by Laura Michelle Kelly (Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady etc.)
Frodo by James Loye (TV’s Dunkirk)
Sam by Peter Howe (original Toronto cast)

Monday evenings at 7.00pm
Tuesday to Saturday evenings at 7.30pm
Saturday matinees at 2.00pm
Thursday matinees at 2.00pm from 28 June
Extra matinees on Monday 24 and Monday 31 December at 1.30pm
No evening performance 24 December.
No performances 25 December

Prices from just £15



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