When Tolkien bursts into song

The `Lord of the Rings' in its musical, West End incarnation has brought in mixed reviews, but it is nothing if not spectacular


Fri, Jun 22, 2007 - Page 16

The musical adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is off and running in London, after mixed reviews that questioned whether the most expensive stage work in history is really worth the money.

With a budget of US$50 million dollars, the highly ambitious musical had been eagerly awaited in the West End since its first run in Toronto last year.


But despite its reduced running time, and its dazzling special effects, acrobatics, illusions and Hobbits, Tuesday's opening night stopped short of overwhelming the critics.

"The battle scenes still struggle to create a sufficient sense of scale; and the inevitable telescoping of Tolkien's dense material can be disorientating," wrote Sam Marlowe in the Times newspaper Wednesday.

"But 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."

I entered Drury Lane as innocent as any hairy-toed hobbit," said Michael Billington, in The Guardian.

"I emerged three and a quarter hours later skeptical as to the main matter but hugely impressed by the manner of Matthew Warchus's production."

Charles Spencer, in The Daily Telegraph, was damning: "Repeatedly during this show you feel its creators have more money than either sense or imagination ... . Its run, I fear, will be nasty, brutish and short."

Paul Taylor, in The Independent, concurred: "When Gandalf is attacked by the demon Balrog, an almighty wind gusts through the theater. Viewed as a piece of music drama, this show is unlikely to blow you away."


Even before the curtain went up at Drury Lane theater Tuesday, the audience was made to feel as though they themselves were visiting the J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle Earth, specifically the territory belonging to Hobbits.

Fifteen minutes before the show, a host of Hobbits - the hairy human-like creates at the heart of the Tolkien trilogy - ran around among the audience, chasing fireflies in the stalls.

Then the main event began, and for three hours the audience was taken on a whirlwind tour through Middle Earth, following Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship on the long trek to Mordor to dispose of the Evil Ring.

Technically, the revolving circular set - made up of 15 hydraulic platforms - allowed for a spectacular array of effects and pyrotechnics which at times overflowed into the audience.

At the end of the clash between Balrog, a tall, menacing demon with control of both fire and shadows, and the wizard Gandalf the Grey, a gust of wind blew thick and hot smoke into the audience.

In the intermission between acts two and three, a band of Orcs slipped into the room while it was plunged into darkness.

In addition to Orcs using springs to accentuate their beast-like qualities, actors playing "giant trees" in the forest of Fangorn are perched on stilts some 3m high and the elf princess Galadriel descends as if from the sky in a ray of light.

On top of all that, shivers were sent through the crowd upon the sighting of Shelob, a demonic figure in the form of a spider 9m in height, or hearing the murmurs of Gollum, a Hobbit consumed by the Ring.

With 50 actors who follow one another on stage, the Lord of the Rings troupe is the biggest in the West End. Auditions for aspirant-hobbits in September were limited to actors no taller than 1.65m without shoes.