Hobbits, elves and their power ballads

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Every few years someone makes a musical of an epic tale that has gripped millions, and concentrates on the spectacle (and occasionally the music) at the expense of the actual tale that has done the gripping. Sometimes it works – Les Misérables, arguably – sometimes not – Notre Dame de Paris, indisputably. Matthew Warchus and Shaun McKenna’s filleting of J.R.R. Tolkien’s huge trilogy preserves the spine of the original story: Frodo and Sam living in rural contentment, ring of power, Rivendell and elves, Fellowship, Moria, Lothlórien and more elves, Gollum, Mount Doom, ring destroyed, victory. But whole chunks of plot are waved airily aside. How did Gandalf the wizard escape his imprisonment by his corrupt brother Saruman? “I escaped.” How is the hobbits’ homeland rid of him at the end of the story? “Saruman has moved on now.” After the great climax, how do Frodo and Sam escape the volcanic Cracks of Doom? No idea: possibly the One Ring is also a mystical fire extinguisher.

Increasingly, the show loses any sense of location, especially when men and hobbits begin having visions of big power ballads sung in an even more ill-defined dreamland by elves. (These elves are also addicted to aerial work, with flying harnesses, rope spinning: in addition to Tolkien’s High Elves and Wood Elves, now meet the Bungee Elves.) The great city of the realms of men – Minas Tirith to those who know the story – is represented by a few model buildings carried aloft on poles. The hobbits’ early journey through the woods around the Shire is dealt with by another team of pole-wielders in shrouds, who look as if they are punting the forest along.

Does it work as a musical? Tolkien’s own lyrics often plonked terribly, but they are known. Warchus and McKenna’s task has been to paraphrase: to retain familiar tones and phrases without simply reproducing the originals. Inevitably, the craftsmanship of the copies is inferior. As for Finnish folk group Värttinä’s score, even with two makeovers, by A.R. Rahman and now Christopher Nightingale, it cannot muster a single memorable tune.

What about as a spectacle? About half of the Theatre Royal auditorium has been overgrown with something or other (obscured-view seats: £50), which with different lighting effects becomes forest or cavern. Lights and video back-projection do most of the work, aided by an incessantly rising and falling sectional stage.

Director Warchus went to the trouble of circulating a press release protesting that the production in fact cost only about half of the rumoured figure of £25m; perhaps it should have used the other half. The wall, singular, of Frodo’s underground home shakes even more than the Alps beneath Maria’s feet in The Sound Of Music at the Palladium. The towering horses of the Black Riders and the colossal spider Shelob are impressive, but when the best things in the show are the puppets, all is not well.

Of the actors, Malcolm Storry is a dignified Gandalf, James Loye and Peter Howe a serviceable Frodo and Sam, and Michael Therriault an impressively sinuous Gollum, albeit with a tendency to strike brief Flashdance poses. Accomplished actors both of drama (Andrew Jarvis as elf- lord Elrond) and music theatre (Sévan Stephan as Gimli the dwarf) are sadly underused; Brian Protheroe’s Saruman has a bizarre accent, though it is not, alas, the silliest of the evening. Even after the unenthusiastically received Toronto outing last year, which led to extensive revision and the shaving of some 45 minutes off the running time (now barely three hours), expectations were high. Those expectations have not been met.

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