The multi-million pound musical spectacular that is Lord of the Rings (the musical) leaves London on July 19th (one review hinted that it might be going to New Zealand at one point – the words “coal” and “Newcastle” leap swiftly to mind), and when it became apparent that I could score a ticket-and-dinner deal for 20 squid I thought “Why not, indeed!”.

Anybody familiar with Tolkien’s magnum opus (either in printed form, or the outstanding series of films by Mr Peter Jackson & friends) would immediately think “Hang on, Peter Jackson managed to pack it into 9.5 hours of film, but only by leaving out chunks of detail – surely it will prove an enormous challenge to tell this tale in the time constraint traditionally afforded to a musical theatre performance?”.  That’s exactly what I was thinking too, trendsetters.

I’ll get it out of the way now – this show was an absolute technical masterclass.  The sets, costume, and lighting design were stupendous.  From my seat (up in mid-nosebleed-land – what do you expect for £20?) the stippled lighting rotating on stage often gave an impression of motion, as well as creating incredible depth and texture.  The auditorium was already dressed with an impressive thicket of treeroots to give the place a suitably organic feel.  Far and away the most striking fixture of the staging was the rotating stage with multiple hydraulic lifts, so that sections of it could rise and fall and create all manner of landscapes & set features (bed, table, walls, etc).  During a few points in proceedings Sam & Frodo on their journey to Mordor would walk around the rotating and undulating set, giving a quite theatrically effective impression of traversing a landscape – I couldn’t help but think of how they produced a similar effect at Spamalot for about £999,500 quid cheaper and almost as convincing.

The main difficulty I had with this show was the pace, and the editing of the storyline.  I guess I’ll never know for sure, but I’m reasonably certain that were you to be an audient who hadn’t read the books or seen the films, you would have left the building with a faint suspicion that you didn’t really understand most of what had just happened.  Any story can usually be distilled & simplified down to a shortened version – memorably, Book-a-minute summarised the  trilogy quite concisely – however I guess it seemed a little disingenuous to not have entitled the show “The Lord of the Rings (expurgated version)”.

To give you an idea of the cracking pace it shot along at, the show started about 19:45 in The Shire, which the Hobbits left, encountered some Black Riders (which were extremely well done & quite scary), and with the aid of some big pieces of spandex found their way to Rivendell.  By 20:29 the entire Fellowship of the Ring were at the Pass at Caradhras.  By 20:30 they had solved the riddle of the gates of Moria, and were inside the mines.  The Balrog showed up about 20:41, and by 20:45 it was intermission.  In one hour they’d pretty well encapsulated the first book, and had time to throw in a catchy & well choreographed (matter of fact, the best song/sequence in the show) 10 minute pub knees-up in the Inn of the Prancing Pony.

When the curtain raised at 21:05 I wondered how on earth they were going to cram the rest of book 1 and the remaining 2 books into the 1 hour & 25 minutes or so that was left.  As it turned out, the answer was Leave Out Most Of It.  Ringwraiths – on stage twice.  Old Forest/Barrow Downs – out.  Galadriel’s Mirror – out.  Men of Rohan / King Theoden / Grima Wormtongue – out.  Consequently, Helm’s Deep – out.  Ents & Fangorn Forest – covered in about 6 minutes by a stilted bloke who resembled a French Shepherd and sounded like a BBC Radio Vogon.  Out also were the Palantir, the Dead Marshes, meeting Faramir, the army at Minas Morgul, Sam & Frodo getting captured after leaving Shelob’s lair, the defence of Osgiliath, the Paths of the Dead, the siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Field (and the killing of the With King of Angmar), and the one omission I agreed with was that of the Giant Eagles at the end.  Tolkien must’ve been smoking crack when he thought of that ending.  In fact, so much of the last 2 volumes were left out that the 2nd half of the musical had a disproportionate amount of sitting around doing nothing.  Very strange.

I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that I didn’t enjoy it though – the plotline that remained was far denser than that of most operas, and the effects were bordering on mind-blowing.  The 2nd half opened with Gollum spider-crawling headfirst down the curtain, then scurrying off across stage such that he couldn’t have been wired in.  Shelob the giant spider was suitably creepy and massive, if only onstage for a few seconds.  Lots of it was tacky, like the orcs on crutches – I suspect it was a device employed to give them a less human-looking presence and gait, however it constantly made me think “Hey, it’s blokes on crutches”.  The singing was also a bit naff – apparently most of the principals didn’t get renewed contracts, so now it’s all understudies… talented enough people, but not crowd-pullers.  Galadriel’s voice seemed a bit whiny and had the “woo-woo” qualities of if you’d asked your Mum to pretend to be a fairy to amuse the grandkiddies, and I have no idea where Gandalf’s accent was meant to come from.  I thought perhaps he was trying to over-Christopher Lee up his voice with “Morrrdorrrr”, and then just keep ludicrously rolling his ‘r’s – as well as throwing in an impression of John Cleese as Tim the Enchanter.  I had trouble pinning down whether the hobbits were meant to have Irish or West Country accents, as I suspect did they.

So in summary, I’m glad both that I went along, and that I only paid £20 for it.  The meal afterwards was nice.