As previously tipped (See The Goss, 2 Jun 2006), the stage adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings will receive its European premiere at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane where it will open on 19 June 2007 (previews from 9 May), as the most expensive production in West End history.

The £12.5 million musical received its world premiere to mixed reviews in March in Toronto (See News, 23 Mar 2006). At the 2,200-seat Drury Lane, the epic will be shortened by approximately 30 minutes to three-and-a-quarter hours. According to producer Kevin Wallace, the changes – including a significant rewrite of Act 3, with the volcanic Cracks of Doom climax completely redone – should result in a more “emotionally heightened” spectacle.

Wallace told “There will be more music to drive the story and increase the dramatic and emotional intensity of the experience for the audience.” Much of the political subplot has also been excised for greater clarity. In Canada, says Wallace, “we were very diligent to the books, perhaps even to a fault”.

The Lord of the Rings has a book and lyrics by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus (who also directs), and music by Bombay Dreams’ AR Rahman and Finnish folk group Värttinä with Christopher Nightingale (See News, 21 Oct 2003). The key creative team – director Warchus, designer Rob Howell and choreographer Peter Darling (who were both winners at this year’s Olivier Awards) – are all London-based, including Limerick-born Wallace, who says the piece has very much “grown out of a British theatre tradition”. “It’s so good to be doing it here,” he added.

Wallace and his co-producers initially intended to stage the musical first in the West End in spring 2005, but the premiere was delayed and the location switched to Canada once it became apparent that their original chosen venue, the Dominion Theatre, wouldn’t be available for some time due to the ongoing success of We Will Rock You. After Toronto, the plan was still to move it into the Dominion early next year, but the Queen musical’s immovability required a change of plan (See News, 2 May 2006).

Shying away from labelling it as either simply a play or a musical, director Matthew Warchus has described The Lord of the Rings as “a hybrid of text, physical theatre, music and spectacle never previously seen on this scale.” The stage production comes in the wake of the 70th anniversary of when Tolkien first began writing The Lord of the Rings and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the complete trilogy, comprising The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King - as well, of course, as Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film trilogy.

In Canada, the 50-strong cast included Britons James Loye (pictured) as Frodo, the ring bearer and reluctant hero, and Owen Sharpe and Peter Howe as his hobbit sidekicks Pippin and Samwise Gamgee. All three are optioned to reprise their roles in London, where other principal casting will get underway this summer with auditions for the full British company in September.

Because of the physical theatre nature of the piece, not least the stilt-walking, performers must undergo an intensive eight to ten-week rehearsal period, a cross between “boot camp and Buddhist retreat” says Wallace, ahead of a full five weeks of technical rehearsal at Drury Lane and six weeks of previews. Workshops of the revised script are taking place in Brixton this week.

Tickets for The Lord of the Rings range from £15 to £60, and, Wallace promises, “you see the money on the stage” in what should be a “very satisfying” visual spectacle. To make it more accessible for younger Tolkien fans, 450 seats will be priced at £27.50 or less with £10 off all seats during the extended preview period. Tickets go on sale to the public on 2 July 2006, with booking open until March 2008.

- by Terri Paddock