The Lord of the Rings

Book and lyrics by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus, music by A.R.Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale

Based on the novels of J R Tolkien

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

(2007)

Review by Philip Fisher

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This review must start with a public health warning. If you are the kind of fantasy freak who believes that J.R.R.Tolkien is a more important figure than whoever wrote the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, you will probably have a heart attack before the end of the next few paragraphs.

At a little over three hours, The Lord of the Rings is almost Shakespearean in length, although compared to the books, which, including The Hobbit, get close to 2000 pages and the 11 hours of films, it seems positively modest in its ambitions.

Surprisingly, the book and lyrics have no more depth than Spamalot and at times, such is the silliness, one expects The Knights who say Ni to make a guest appearance.

They would certainly feel at home with such unusual beasts as those tubby little Hobbits, Saruman's and Sauron's Orcs, Ents, Elves of Lothlórien and the forces of Mordor. By the end, this dizzying array of weirdoes becomes completely indistinguishable but that is soon forgotten in Matthew Warchus' epic production.

That is because, even if visitors cannot suspend their disbelief, they will be blown away by the show's incredibly high production qualities which owe more than a little to a £12.5 million budget, equivalent to the cost of a fairly useful international footballer or a new hospital; but a drop in the ocean compared to the spend on Peter Jackson's popular movies.

For those that are not worshippers at the shrine of Tolkien, this is the tale of Frodo Baggins, an overweight and undersized hero played by the well-padded James Loye. He is given some kind of ring of invisibility by his uncle Bilbo and sets off on an Arthurian quest to lose it, aided by the Knights of the Ring rather than the Round Table.

Finally, after numerous adventures and near-death experiences, they emerge triumphant and between them marry pretty much every female in their male-dominated society.

However, they do so in a production that has such incredible style and visual imagination that the experience is well worth the £60 price of a top ticket.

Matthew Warchus, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Shaun McKenna, has created a stage version that, according to this writer's companion on the night, can compete with the movies.

Robert Howell's set spreads dense foliage out into the audience. It revolves and moves up and down as well as using computer generated imagery and is enhanced by possibly the best lighting ever seen on a London stage.

Paul Pyant uses light and dark as well as vibrant colour to create an experience like no other, with effects that both delight and terrify, never more so than when the sinister Black Riders are seen for the first time.

They, like their distant cousins the Orcs, are sinister black-clad figures that scare not only the Peter Pan-like Frodo and his pals but also delightedly squealing audience members when the latter venture out into the auditorium during the interval.

Howell goes overboard in inventing all of these monsters using everything from pogo sticks to 30 ft stilts and, in the case of the Caliban figure Gollum, an awful lot of slime. They are then moved around the stage courtesy of the impeccable choreography of Peter Darling, who excels when he gets large numbers of lithe, gymnastic performers together or uses the space above the stage for breathtaking aerial acrobatics.

To all of this is added an atmospheric soundscape and a rather mixed up score created by three different composers which starts in Irish mode, with ballads succeeded by big-budget Riverdance type numbers.

There is then a series of musical standards, primarily for the benefit of the two leading ladies, Trevor Nunn's original Mary Poppins, Laura Michelle Kelly as Galadriel, The Lady of Lothlórien, and Rosalie Craig playing Arwen Evenstar, who gives up her immortality for the love of Strider, played by the evening's other impressive singer Jérôme Pradon.

This then builds to a Wagnerian culmination that can hardly fail to excite, as the forces of dark and light battle for some kind of allegorical high ground, which suggests that the whole point of the evening might be an attack on industrialisation and war.

The leading characters have a kind of scampish charm and receive good support from two men who look like ageing zonked-out hippies, Shakespearean actors Malcolm Storry and Brian Protheroe playing good and bad wizards.

The Lord of the Rings is undoubtedly going to prove the biggest theatrical event of the year. Even those who cannot get on with the story should enjoy the operatic impact of this incredibly ambitious production.