As I've been passing the Theatre Royal Drury Lane during what seems like an aeon or three, the poster for 'Lord Of The Rings' has proclaimed the new mysterious incumbents without letting slip the merest hint of what has been going on behind the impressive and historic facade. Well, now we know.
With a budget of more than £12 million - not far off the total monthly income of 2 million people in rural Africa - the production team have transformed the Theatre Royal by installing a multi-platform turntable as the main feature on the stage, and turned much of the auditorium into what looks like a half-dead forest that's still edging its way out from the stage to grab hold of you and drag you inside.
Written by J. R. R. Tolkien in the latter part of the 1930s and almost the whole of the 1940s, 'Lord of the Rings' was eventually published in 1954 and 1955 in three huge volumes much to the chagrin of the writer who wanted it sold in a single enormous tome. Though it sold quite well in hardback, it became frighteningly popular from the 1960s after its appearance in paperback. And we've now had a succession of visual productions attempting to bring the work to life, culminating in Peter Jackson's 9 hour marathon trilogy of award-winning films.
The overwhelming impression you take away from this show is of superb technical wizardry, if not sheer brilliance. There are neat tricks from start to end which frankly leave one gawping in amazement. It starts even before the show really kicks off when Middle Earth comes to life in the auditorium while everyone takes their seats. Some tiny lights hover and fly around without any detectable means of support - no wires or strings in sight. And almost immediately the show starts, Bilbo Baggins disappears from his birthday party in a flash, and – as they say – before your very eyes. There's a startlingly stunning effect just before the interval when Gandalf fights his nemesis, the Balrog, and a swirling wind is conjured up that had me convinced we were witnessing the kind of 3D you get at the cinema when wearing special glasses. There are terrifyingly spooky Black Riders, and a spider the size of Wembley Stadium that is just a little too real for comfort. And the Orcs spent several minutes terrorising the stalls, raising ear-deafening screams the like of which I've never heard in a West End theatre.
With a long preview period behind it, we've already had criticism in abundance, and even those who haven't seen the show have opinions aplenty. Figuring most prominently is the question of whether one can transform a work of almost gargantuan proportions, a cast of thousands and a plot that would challenge the workings of a super computer, into a three hour show without turning it into mind-numbing drivel. It turns out that, at least in the first half, the plot is pretty well defined and clear - even for those who haven't felt able to pick up the book, let alone read it. Things do get a little more foggy in the long second half, but even then I think most people could follow the story to its conclusion without too much stress on their shrivelled neurons.
Having got the plot more or less right, and enlisted a technical crew with staggeringly amazing skills, the producers somehow seem to have forgotten about the acting department and the script they've been given to work with. Frankly, no-one in this cast really shines. With a work literally littered with enormously powerful characters, we're simply asked to make do with acting that is just adequate for the purpose but not very much more. There's a real sense here that the actors have been dwarfed in the process of making this show more gadgetrified than any other before it.
Brian Protheroe's Saruman had all the wizardry of a Dickensian bookkeeper, and Malcolm Storry's Gandalf came across as an irritable, carping grandparent who knows his days of influence are numbered. Some of the intonation was rather bland and the diction rather ordinary. However, Andrew Jarvis (Elrond) wasn't going to fall into that trap, but readily fell into another. With a declamatory tone that would have put some of the old-style, Shakespearian actor managers to shame - and reminded me instantly of Jim Broadbent's deliberately over-the-top performance in 'Theatre of Blood' - he rolled his r's, eg. 'Fellowship of the Rrrrrrrrrrrring', almost to oblivion and back again.
Much vaunted in it's Canadian run was the performance of Michael Therriault as Gollum. But though I was certainly impressed with his athletic capabilities, I'm afraid his characterisation left me wondering what kind of creature this actually was. Crawling on all fours and supposedly with a curved spine, Therriault suddenly springs to his feet and stands like a flyweight boxer about to beat the living daylights out of an opponent. Of course, Gollum is a decidedly odd kind of character, crawling or walking as the fancy takes him. But unlike Jackson's film where Gollum's movements were odd but consistent, Therriault can't quite resist showing off his athleticism to the detriment of what we understand about the character's way of moving. Still, in spite of my reservations, the audience gave him what I thought was the best reception come the curtain calls – so what do I know?
The script too made me wince on several occasions, for example when Strider says 'All I've done has gone amiss'. That sounded more like Miss Marple than an Orc-fighting woodsman and king-in-waiting. Oh dear! And there's not too much in the way of humour in the script except when one of the hobbits says about Galadriel 'When she looked at me it felt like I'd nothing on' – a rather naughty Hobbit you might think, but something of a 21st century, You Tube watching one, I would say.
One thing I have to admire about this production is the prompt start. It's a never-ending source of irritation that drives me almost to insanity and back again when shows begin long after their advertised start times. Not so here - “7:30 PM PROMPT” it says on the tickets, and they damn-well mean it. That deserved the biggest round of applause of the night, and a gold award to boot – lets hope this new resolve spreads around the West End like a beneficial plague!
'Lord of The Rings' is undoubtedly a magical experience brought about by numerous strokes of sheer technical brilliance and courtesy of a huge pile of moola . It would simply be ridiculous for anyone to say they couldn't find something in it to justify the ticket price. And I enjoyed the whole spectacle, even though the second half is very long. However, it's a shame that the acting and the script haven't attracted the same care and attention which seems to have been lavished on the technology and effects. I suspect that this is a case where sheer weight of numbers and the demands of an unforgiving schedule had a detrimental effect. Nevertheless, the acting is good enough to see the show through, and I doubt that many will walk away feeling anything like as disappointed as Sauron.
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "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." KIERON QUIRKE for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Ill-fated at conception, tedious and vulgar in execution." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "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." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "The language is flat, portentous or twee, and there is barely a moment that makes you gasp...tiresome grandiosity with mind-rotting mediocrity" SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "A brave, stirring, epic piece of popular theatre that, without slavishly adhering to J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, embraces their spirit. The show has charm, wit, and jaw-dropping theatrical brio; crucially, it also has real emotional heft."
Production photo by Manuel Harian