Note: This review dates from December 2000 and this production's first West End season.
When the great wizard Gandalf (James Earl Adair) turns a trio of trolls to stone with a thrust of his hand and a crackling explosion, a kid in the audience the night I attended said “Wow”. Unfortunately, I do not share his sense of wonder at this leaden version of JRR Tolkien s classic The Hobbit.
Every book adaptation necessitates substantial trimming and a narrowing of the text s vision and breadth. Even so, in Glyn Robbins incarnation, the story thins, losing charm and humour. And our hero, Bilbo Baggins (Michael Geary) often seems more petulant than a courageous little homebody caught up in a deadly adventure.
An indecipherably dumb show raises the curtain, depicting some kind of battle. After this puzzling opening, the action closely follows Tolkien's plot but in skeletal form. Within Thorin Oakenshield s (an uninspiring Kieron Smith) small company of dwarves, only Balin (Cornelius Clarke) is distinguishable thanks to his lovely singing voice. The troupe's visit to the enchanted house of Elrond (Mark Noble) lacks exactly that quality. At least an evening with the bear-like Beorn (David Lumsden) resounds with music, with Beorn's fellow woodsmen dancing in a faintly homo-erotic sequence.
The single outstanding scene is Bilbo's encounter with the simpering Gollum (a slippery and agile Clive Kneller). Here, Tolkien's riddles, and the situation's menace, concentrate the attention.
David Shields' set design draws repeatedly on three moveable, vaguely tree-like structures, while Roy Marsden's direction neither infuses his actors with sparkle nor blocks them with much inventiveness. Evoking a journey on stage is a challenge, yet too many scenes simply depict the dwarves and the hobbit going round and up and down the set. Extra stage dressing in the form of long branches and greenery hardly adds to the atmosphere. And Bilbo's encounter with Smaug reminds one of Dorothy meeting the real wizard of Oz: it's all smoke and loud voices, but a clear fabrication. The dragon's eyes are noticeably yellow stage lights.
Celebrated magician Ali Bongo is credited as the production's consultant. Sadly here he seems to have kept his tricks firmly up his sleeve.