Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2
Opened 16 June
, 2007

As soon as I sat down to watch the furry-footed little people gambolling around the auditorium before the show itself began, I started sneezing. Either my hay fever had chosen that moment to come on, or I'm allergic to hobbits. On the basis of the rest of the evening, the latter cannot be ruled out.

Every few years someone makes a musical of an epic tale that has gripped millions, and concentrates on the spectacle (and occasionally the music) at the expense of the actual epic tale that has done the gripping. Sometimes it works – Les Misérables, arguably – sometimes not – Notre Dame de Paris, indisputably. Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna's filleting of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1000-page-plus trilogy preserves the spine of the original story: Frodo and Sam living in rural contentment, ring of power, Rivendell and elves, Fellowship, Moria, Lothlórien and more elves, Gollum, Mount Doom, ring destroyed, victory. More than that is difficult to say. Whole chunks of plot are waved airily aside. How did Gandalf the wizard escape his imprisonment by his corrupt brother Saruman? "I escaped." That's all right, then. How is the hobbits' homeland rid of him at the end of the story? "Saruman has moved on now." Good-oh. After the great climax, how do Frodo and Sam escape the volcanic Cracks of Doom? No idea – possibly the One Ring is also a mystical fire extinguisher. Never mind, on we skim.

Increasingly, the show loses any sense of location, especially when men and hobbits begin having visions of big power ballads sung in an even more ill-defined dreamland by elves. (Elves as a race seem big on gesturing, or possibly on simultaneous Elvish sign-translation. They are also addicted to aerial work, with flying harnesses, rope spinning, and a whole new category in addition to Tolkien's High Elves and Wood Elves: now, meet the Bungee Elves.) The great city of the realms of men – Minas Tirith to those who know the story, but Warchus and McKenna have got rid of proper names wherever possible – is represented by a few model buildings carried aloft on poles. The hobbits' early journey through the woods around the Shire is dealt with by another team of pole-wielders in shrouds, who look as if they are punting the forest along.

Does it work as a musical? Even the question is rather sanguine. Granted, Tolkien's own lyrics often plonked terribly, but they are known. Warchus and McKenna's principal task here has been to paraphrase: to retain familiar tones and phrases without simply reproducing the originals. Inevitably, the craftsmanship of the copies is inferior. As for Värttinä's score, even with two makeovers, by A.R. Rahman and now Christopher Nightingale, it cannot muster a single memorable tune. By and large it has two modes: unspecifically folky and unspecifically anthemic.

What about as a spectacle? About half of the Theatre Royal auditorium has been seemingly overgrown with something or other (obscured-view seats: £50), which with different lighting effects becomes forest, cavern or... well, usually forest or cavern, actually. Lights and video back-projection do most of the work, aided by an incessantly used rising and falling sectional stage revolve. Director Warchus went to the trouble of circulating a press release beforehand protesting that the production in fact cost only around half of the rumoured figure of £25 million; perhaps it should have used the other half. The wall, singular, of Frodo’s underground home shakes even more than the Alps beneath Maria’s feet in The Sound Of Music at the Palladium. The towering horses of the Black Riders and the colossal spider Shelob are impressive, but as my friend observed, when the best things in the show are the puppets, all is not well.

Of the actors, Malcolm Storry is a dignified Gandalf, James Loye and Peter Howe a serviceable Frodo and Sam, and Michael Therriault an impressively sinuous Gollum, albeit with an occasional tendency to strike brief Flashdance poses. Accomplished actors both of drama (Andrew Jarvis as elf-lord Elrond) and music theatre (Sévan Stephan as Gimli the dwarf) are sadly underused; Brian Protheroe has decided to play Saruman as Jose Ferrer, though his is far from the silliest accent of the evening. It is easy to find fault, of course, but that is because there are faults enough. Those behind the production knew that expectations were high, even after the unenthusiastically received Toronto outing last year which led to extensive revision and the shaving of some 45 minutes off the running time (now barely three hours). Those expectations have not been met. In fact, with undistinguished music, and the puppetry and aerial work, the closest point of comparison may be the Millennium Dome stage show. Enough said.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2007

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage