The Lord of the Rings: The Musical is a phrase that inspires horror and dread in most Tolkien fans. It brings to mind images of Orcs prancing across a stage singing about decapitation while Gollum warbles in a croaky voice about the agony of being a Ringbearer, with Frodo joining him for a heart-wrenching duet.
The first piece of good news is that The Lord of the Rings is not a musical; not in the traditional sense, at least. The story is not told through song; rather, the music is used to provide atmosphere and to lend a sense of culture and history to the world. In fact, it works in much the same way as the songs and poetry in the book.
And therein lies the second piece of good news: the plot may be cut and characters altered from their book-dwelling counterparts, but the spirit of Tolkien is very much in evidence. I would even say more so than in Peter Jackson's films.
Excerpts of dialogue are lifted straight from the book in many cases, or at least paraphrased. Some of the songs, while not directly quoted, also bear a striking resemblance to songs within the book. Frodo's song in the Prancing Pony, for example, may not be in Tolkien's words, but it contains a fiddle-playing cat and a horned cow all the same.
The overriding triumph of this show, however, does not lie in the script or in the acting (which leaves a little to be desired, it has to be said), but in the staging. This production will leave you in no doubt whatsoever as to where your ticket money has been spent.
From the moment you enter the theatre, you are absorbed into Middle-earth. The set extends from the stage over much of the ceiling, completely covering the front few boxes. The most talked-about aspect – and the most innovative – is the stage itself. It consists of concentric circles, all split into smaller shapes, each one rising and falling independently. In this way, all of the diverse scenery of Middle-earth can be created using the stage, from the Bridge of Khazad-dum to Mount Doom. The special effects are remarkable (especially if you sit far enough back not to be able to see how they're achieved); Bilbo's disappearance in particular had the audience gasping in the first few minutes of the performance.
The show tries to draw in the audience by involving them in a way that isn't possible in the cinema. From Hobbits dancing in the aisles in the pre-show to gusts of wind and ash, to Orcs attacking the audience (or frightening them at least), this is a long way from being a passive experience.
That's not to say it's all perfect, of course. I mentioned that the acting was not a strong point, and this is especially true of the Elves. I was fortunate enough to see both the first preview and the official opening night performances, and the wild gesticulating in the former (which rather brought to mind a bad attempt at sign language) seemed to have been toned down by the latter, but the Elves still overact in a way that would put Spamalot's Hannah Waddingham to shame. Andrew Jarvis can be a little painful to listen to as Elrond (I think even the most pretentious would consider his 'r's a little excessively rolled), and Malcolm Storry is surprisingly lacking in the presence required for a convincing Gandalf.
Then again, Steven Miller presents a wonderfully determined yet fatalistic Boromir, while Michael Therriault as Gollum is inspired, dynamic and utterly engaging.
Regrettably, it is not possible to develop so many characters properly in the three hours allowed, so most – including Merry and Pippin (whose titles of "Indistinguishable Backup Hobbits" were never more warranted) – fall by the wayside. The relationship between Frodo and Sam, however, is given its rightful prominence, with one of the most memorable songs of the show.
Likewise, much of the plot is cut or abridged, but in most cases it works rather well. The most lamented instance of this is the decision to join Rohan and Gondor into one kingdom, referred to only as the "Land of Men." It's a shame, especially since we lose Eowyn and Faramir, but it suits the theatrical version since it cuts the number of battles (which would have been somewhat repetitive on stage).
As with any adaptation, there is no point wasting your money on this show if you're going to be happy with nothing less than a word-perfect performance of the book. However, most Tolkien fans will be impressed by the spirit and the inspiration in this breathtaking performance.
The Practical Bit
The Lord of the Rings is currently showing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (which is actually not on Drury Lane at all). The closest Tube is Covent Garden, though it's worth using Holborn or Temple as Covent Garden gets extremely crowded in the evenings. The show is very much about the spectacle, so if you can it is definitely worth forking out a little extra for a better view. The extensive set and rising stage mean that seats with restricted views will affect your enjoyment of the show. In the stalls, you can get a good view from seats to row S, with the centre blocks of rows E to L being generally considered the best. The Grand Circle doesn't have much of a rake, which compromises the view from row F backwards. The seats in front of that, especially the central ones, offer amazing views if you can get them. Rows A to D of the Upper Circle also offer a good view, but from there back, you start to feel very far from the stage.
The Balcony in this theatre is extremely high up, and the view from the first few rows is further affected by the safety rail.
Tickets are available from various outlets, the official one being See (http://www.seetickets.com/). Performances are Mondays at 7pm, Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm and Thursday and Saturday at 2pm. The running time is 3 hours, which includes two intervals (the second of which isn't a real interval). Tickets cost from £15 to £60
Rachael Livermore (former Treasurer – Tolkien Society)