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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane

By David Benedict

  James Loye as Frodo

The hills are alive..." Whoops, wrong show. But with 17 individual hydraulic lifts rising and falling to create a dizzying array of locations from caves and promontories to, well, hills, it's an easy mistake to make. At least it would be if The Lord of the Rings had anything approaching the, heart, soul or score of Sound of Music.

Whatever it is - and with its hours of underscoring but few songs the show fatally cannot decide if it is a play or a musical - it certainly is epic. £12.5m ($25m) has been spent on those lifts, not to mention a 17-piece band, 51 actors and a crew of 71 plus hundreds of costumes, (out-of-focus) projections and more lighting than Target.

The last of those is the show's strongest element Paul Pyant's lighting uses saturated colors and dynamic contrasts of atmosphere to isolate moments, delineats spaces, and evoke moods. Even set designer Rob Howell's gnarled branches unfurling across the proscenium arch and the boxes out into the auditorium are given depth by hundred of tiny bulbs prick light through the darkness.

It is Pyant, not the actors, who lends most drama to the deadeningly plot-heavy three hours, half an hour and one intermission having been excised since the Toronto premiere flopped. Trying to tell vastly detailed stories is not something musical theater does well. Yes, Les Miserables has a giant canvas but it's basically a story of the struggle between two men. The Lord of the Rings is infinitely more diffuse.

As spectacle, it's undeniably impressive, especially the Cirque du Soleil-style effects. But in trying to encompass the breadth of the original material, the show's book, by Shaun Mckenna and director Matthew Warchus, reduces everything to an almost pageant-like, expository parade of individual episodes of equal weight. As a result, tension - its building and release - evaporates. And when a show almost totally in English (with a few departures into Elvish) runs a two-page synopsis in the program, isn't that an admission of failure?

Middle Earth is evidently the land where everyone name-drops their relatives. Anyone who's anyone is referred to as "son of...", or, very occasionally in this overwhelmingly male tale, "daughter of..." This adds portentousness to already platitudinous dialogue which isn't so much spoken as declaimed or intoned. That makes engagement with characters and their plights almost impossible.

At least the hobbits are a little perkier. But the casting of movie-lookalikes James Loye as Frodo and a sparkier Peter Howe as Sam makes one suspicious of the producers' claims that they are presenting something entirely different. What's certainly new is the dourness of Malcolm Storry's Gandalf who has McKellen's haircut (or lack thereof) but none of his wit.

One of the show's most awkward cues - "We haven't had a song round here since I don't know when" - is pretty close to the mark. Beyond drumming and martial brass, most of the music dwells in the land of Celtic mysticism only given a lift by the all-too-brief appearances of Laura Michelle Kelly's Galadriel.


Kelly open-throated sound has a visceral thrill which makes you realise what's missing elsewhere. For all the impressive tortured athletic power of Michael Therriault's Gollum and certain moments of staging splendour, the sheer scale of the production stifles its ability to tell an engaging story. It's sad that for a show all about a journey, dramatically speaking, it's all dressed up with nowhere to go.


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