The journey has indeed been epic for this hybrid musical of The Lord of the Rings. After years of development and re-writing, a try-out last spring in Toronto and six weeks of previews - briefly interrupted last month after an on-stage injury (See News, 31 May 2007) - the stage adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s trilogy opened last night (19 June 2007, previews from 9 May) at the West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
At an estimated cost of £12.5 million, the spectacle, described by its creators as “Shakespeare meets Cirque du Soleil”, is the most expensive production in West End history. The 45-foot stage alone, equipped with three revolves and 17 lifts, cost £1 million. In addition to the expense, the design for The Lord of the Rings is the most high-tech and physically complex in the West End. The show also features stilt-walking, giant leaping and aerial choreography, as well as dance, illusions, magic and other special effects. Ensemble members were required to undergo weeks of boot-camp style training before rehearsals began back in February (See News, 8 Feb 2007).
Since its Canadian run, the piece has been substantially revised and the running time shorted by 40 minutes to just over three hours. The Lord of the Rings has a book and lyrics by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus, and music by Bombay Dreams’ AR Rahman and Finnish folk group Värttinä with Christopher Nightingale (See News, 21 Oct 2003). It’s directed by Warchus, with design by Rob Howell and choreography by Peter Darling.
The 50-strong company is led by: James Loye (as Hobbit hero Frodo), Peter Howe (Sam), Michael Therriault (Gollum), Malcolm Storry (Gandalf), Jerome Pradon (Aragorn), Rosalie Craig (Arwen), Steven Miller (Boromir), Michael Rouse (Legolas), Sevan Stephan (Gimli), Richard Henders (Merry), Owen Sharpe (Pippin), Brian Protheroe (Saruman), and Laura Michelle Kelly (Galadriel).
For first night critics, there was no middle ground for this Middle Earth show: it was love it or loathe it. The ‘lovers’ included, notably, Sam Marlowe in The Times and the Guardian’s Tolkien neophyte Michael Billington, both of whom paid “tribute” to the skills of Matthew Warchus and his creative team in achieving a true spectacle, with “charm, wit and jaw-dropping theatrical brio”. And even the ‘loathers’ couldn’t help but admire the “impressive” feats of designer Rob Howell, particularly his angular arachnid, although most felt that this was not “sufficient compensation for other inadequacies”. For fans of the Peter Jackson films, disappointment in this stage adaptation seemed most acute.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (one star) – “When it was premiered in Toronto last March, the show met with accusations of an over-long running time, incomprehensibility and tedium. Only the first of these faults has been rectified. The Hobbits Frodo and Sam discharge the evil ring into the fires of Mordor after three hours of over-budgeted nonsense that will dismay both admirers of the book and, more significantly, perhaps, fans of Peter Jackson’s epic tripartite movie … Instead of the Fellowship coming together after their various adventures to save Middle Earth from the combined forces of wicked wizard Saruman, we just have one damned thing after another with no coherence and no narrative rhyme or reason. There goes a black rider on stilts, here comes a bunch of tree-like Ents on even bigger stilts. The Orcs have arm-stilts … To say the show was completely stilted would be an understatement … There are a few good meteorological effects, and Paul Pyant’s lighting creates some great architectural shapes. Frodo’s trial in the giant spider’s lair is the best of the encounters … The movie, irresistibly, is as much about the fight for friendship as the fight for freedom. Here, an audience is invited to share in a fight to solve a series of staging problems.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “I suppose there are two ways to approach this mega-musical: either as a paid-up Tolkien aficionado or as a wide-eyed newcomer. Having dipped only briefly into the original trilogy and the Peter Jackson movies, I entered Drury Lane as innocent as any hairy-toed hobbit. I emerged three and a quarter hours later sceptical as to the main matter but hugely impressed by the manner of Matthew Warchus' production. Obviously Shaun McKenna and Warchus, as co-authors, faced a huge task in boiling down a 1,000-page fantasy into a theatrical narrative. But, although bits of the backstory remain obscure, the main thrust is clear … Although I find it difficult to buy into the Tolkien myth, I happily pay tribute to the skills of Warchus and his production team. For all the technology on display in a £12.5 million musical, they avoid presenting us with a heartless industrialised spectacle. Rob Howell's imaginative design transforms the whole theatre into a bosky undergrowth. The barrier between stage and audience is constantly broken down … The special effects, overseen by Gregory Meeh, are also special … Best of all is the giant spider, Shelob, which creeps up on Frodo with legs the size of towering arches: only gradually do you notice the operatives underneath … On the whole, it is not a show for connoisseurs of acting. As in the movie, the most striking performances come from actors who lend a Shakespearean resonance to essentially emblematic figures: most especially Malcolm Storry as Gandalf, Brian Protheroe as Saruman and Andrew Jarvis as Elrond … Even Michael Therriault's Gollum is like an unearthly mix of Ariel and Caliban … Did the show convert me to Tolkien's world? Absolutely not … But I had a perfectly good time at Drury Lane and, if Tolkien's trilogy is to be a stage spectacle, I don't see how it could be better done.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) – “When I saw Matthew Warchus’ production in Toronto last year … I was frustrated by its slower, muddier passages, unimpressed by some key performances and deeply disappointed by its bungled climax. Happily, almost everything that was wrong has been put right … Warchus and his team have created a brave, stirring, epic piece of popular theatre that, without slavishly adhering to JRR Tolkien’s novels, embraces their spirit. The show has charm, wit and jaw-dropping theatrical brio; crucially, it also has real emotional heft … But there’s more here than spectacle … Most memorable of all is Michael Therriault’s riveting Gollum, muttering, growling, slithering, crawling and darting, part insect, part reptile … Snobbery and cynicism be damned: this show is a wonder. Go with an open mind, an open heart, and wide-open eyes, and prepare for enchantment.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Despite having oceans of money sloshed on it, Rings is less heart than a hoot … JRR Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth and its anxieties, receives only a tiny credit in the programme … But Tolkien is well out of it. The product here is more reminiscent of TV's Xena Warrior Princess. Far bigger credits go to the ‘special effects designer’, the ‘set and costume designer’ and the bloke who taught the cast their acrobatics … I lost count of the mass-choreographed fights, some with fantastic giant horses, others with nasty Orcs (weird soldiers with crutches) who bounce around on rubberised foot stilts doing backward somersaults … Led by James Loye (who plays Frodo Baggins), the Hobbits are agreeably stumpy, stout and companionable. Along with the slithery exile Gollum (done with much arching of the spine by Michael Therriault) they are the best thing in the show … Once things get going, seasickness. This is caused by a wildly overdone revolve … Few scenes pass without the revolve being given an extended workout. The first couple of times this was interesting. By the tenth time I'd had quite enough. Without that revolve, and without Rob Howell's designs, what would be left? Not much … Gandalf (Malcolm Storry) and his fellow wizard Saruman (Brian Protheroe) look like druids from an Asterix book and ham it up appallingly … The music is unmemorable and clichéd … There is a surfeit of characters with silly hats and cod accents. Cod everywhere in fact. Cod folk tunes. Cod penny whistling. Cod olde worlde language (it's never ‘go on’ but ‘go forth!’) and cod aphorisms (‘all roads lead to sacrifice!’). Cod. Cod. Cod.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “I'm sorry to report that (this show) remains a thumping great flop. I took my 14-year-old son along, who enjoyed Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings films and is, I would guess, exactly the age and sex this show needs to attract in order to survive. Unfortunately, he hated it even more than I did, sitting with his head in his hands in those moments when he wasn't tittering at the ponderous inanities of the script and the triteness of the lyrics … Warchus' claim that the show is a cross between Shakespeare and Cirque du Soleil is risible. The language is flat, portentous or twee, and there is barely a moment that makes you gasp … The stage, which revolves and rises and falls in 17 different sections, may be complex but is far from spectacular. Repeatedly during this show you feel its creators have more money than either sense or imagination … The score, by the Indian film composer AR Rahman, the Finnish group Värttinä and musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale is an endearingly trippy mix of folk rock and Eastern mysticism, but fatally lacks a killer melody that lodges itself in the memory. The book, by Warchus himself and Shaun McKenna, will I suspect be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't already know the story, and the attempts at humour – ‘May the hair on your toes never fall out’ - are so cute you feel faintly sick … Only Michael Therriault's charismatically creepy and athletic Gollum, and James Loye and Peter Howe who make a touching double act as Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, come to persuasive life. These last three are survivors of the original Canadian production. Full marks for loyalty but few for judgment, for they have wasted their time and talent on a show that combines tiresome grandiosity with mind-rotting mediocrity. Its run, I fear, will be nasty, brutish and short.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent - “Heavily revamped, and with 45 minutes lopped off its original three-hour running time, it opened last night at London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Is it now the one show to rule them all? I wonder what the Elvish word is for ‘no’ … The promised ‘hybrid of text, physical theatre, music and spectacle never previously seen on this scale’ turns out to be a show with a bit of an identity crisis, strong on dynamic spectacle, squeezed as drama, and in two minds about how it wants to use music dramatically … Especially when Laura Michelle Kelly's Galadriel lets rip with eerie crystalline clarity and Celtic-tinged melodic curlicues, (the music) can create a magical, otherworldly atmosphere that combines ethnic strangeness with elegiac lament for the passing of an era. But I find it disappointing that the music is employed as an accompaniment to the drama rather than as a way of digging deeper into it … With epic, it's vital to get a sense of time passed, distance covered and suffering endured. Here, despite the drastic cuts to material, it took three lengthy films to encompass, the story-telling is rushed … The evening's stand-out performer is Michael Therriault who jerks and jack-knifes like an addict assailed by painful, conflicting impulses as the slimy, perverted Gollum. Even a fine classical actor, Malcolm Storry, who plays Gandalf, is left struggling with cardboard characterisation. Rob Howell's design, thrillingly lit by Paul Pyant, sends a creepy canopy of twisted tree roots out into the auditorium … The gigantic, spitting Shelob will be a major recruiting drive for arachnophobia. But is impressive spectacle sufficient compensation for other inadequacies? When Gandalf is attacked by the demon, Balrog, an almighty wind gusts through the theatre. Viewed as a piece of music drama, this show is unlikely to blow you away.”
Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard (one star) - “People said it couldn't be done - and they were right. The attempt to condense the 20th century's most popular epic into three hours has resulted in an empty-headed and messy extravaganza that will appal established fans and baffle newcomers. Neither musical nor play, The Lord of the Rings feels most of all like a theme park stage show, or an extended interlude from the Eurovision Song Contest. The technical and human resources on display are staggering … Yet as many times as our minds form the question ‘How did they do that?’ the question ‘Why did they do that?’ follows … Without knowing the plot in advance, no one could fully understand what is going on … More depressing still is the human drama. There's precious little. The novel's large-scale narrative has been viciously trimmed, leaving hardly any room for character development … Under time pressure, famous scenes go by as if the actors are anxious to get out of the way of the stage machinery … Michael Therriault's jittery, physical performance as the schizophrenic Gollum, is the best of the night. The draw of spectacle and of its franchise may yet make this show a hit. It would be difficult to begrudge the hard-working dancers and ingenious designers that success. But you can't fill three hours with setpieces, and this remains a folly, ill-fated at conception, tedious and vulgar in execution. To watch it is to hear money poured down the drain.”
Bill Hagerty in the Sun - “You’ve never seen spectacle like it. Trouble is, you can’t come out of the theatre humming spectacle … Overblown, over-orchestrated and now over here, the show that began life in Toronto 15 months ago has lost half an hour or more on its transatlantic trip. It’s not enough … I reckon there are too many minuses for the show to be the massive hit necessary for the £12.5 million investment to be recouped, even if every Tolkien junkie in the country flocks to Drury Lane. But there are some pluses … There’s a potentially award-winning performance from Michael Therriault, whose wheedling, whining, slithery Gollum makes his entrance by crawling head first from ceiling to stage … Rob Howell’s costumes and sets are terrific too … And Peter Darling contributes some sprightly choreography.”
- by Terri Paddock