The production team of the Lord of the Rings stage show come to the Union next week.


Rob Morgan talks to the director, designer and composer about the play’s epic development and Emma Whipday reviews the show

'It’s the biggest thing any of us have ever done in terms of its complexity, and we’ve been ambitious with it. We’re reaching quite far and calling on ourselves in a way that we’ve never done in the past." So says designer Rob Howell of The Lord of the Rings.

According to director Matthew Warchus, the aim of the production was always to stay close to the imaginative experience of the books, hence the controversial move toward musical theatre: "I thought that instead of trying to use the conventions of musical theatre for a template, we should produce a piece of theatre that pulls it more towards Tolkien’s vocabulary, which is full of music. People sing a lot in the book." There are numerous big production numbers such as ‘The Cat and the Moon’, performed by the hobbits as they begin their journey through Middle-earth, as well as Frodo and Sam’s beautiful ballad, ‘Now and For Always’.

There’s been much debate about whether the result is a musical, but that didn’t stop a Toronto theatre company lampooning the show’s epic production process in The Lord of the Rings: The Musical: The Musical!. A substantially re-written version is now running in London’s West End.

The set in the Theatre Royal was designed with ground-breakingly precise computer modelling which can simulate the view from every seat in the house. "Because it’s a journey story, we wanted to completely include and embrace the audience in it as well", says Howell, part of the team which transferred the play to London.

"Whenever the fellowship arrived at a new location or met a new race or culture, the audience arrives at the same time with them, instead of revealing the scene after the characters have already arrived there. But believe it or not, our desire was to work with less rather than more, and if you walk around backstage, there’s not much there. We haven’t got truckloads of scenery. We are trying to allow the audiences to imagine things for themselves".

Oxford audiences may have to stretch their imaginations a little further. Rumour has it that there may be a rendition of one of the play’s musical set-pieces in the Union Debating Hall this Tuesday when Warchus and Producer Kevin Wallace bring cast members to talk about the show and its development. Cherwell has a deal for Oxford students to see the show for £30, including travel to and from London. See www.hitthetheatre.co.uk/cherwell for details.

Review 

I have never seen a production as visually spectacular as this. It was, quite literally, breathtaking. I doubt I’ll ever work out how the production team manage to make Bilbo disappear, but disappear he does, right before you eyes. As for the set; well, it’s easy to see where the majority of a reported £25 million budget was spent; and every penny was worth it in terms of sheer visual splendour. So it seems a shame, all things considered, that rest of the performance fails to live up to it.

I admit that it can’t be easy to squash three full-length novels into three hours of performance, so I’ll excuse the conflation. What annoys me is that, despite a wealth of material to choose from, the script is ultimately shallow. Though the final scene manages to be moving, the majority of the dialogue is unutterably twee. What’s even worse is that some of the best lines are ruined by simple overacting. Wizards may be very powerful, but I don’t see why that means they have to shout all the time; James Loye is sympathetic and believable as Frodo, but has such an unpleasant voice it quite puts me off.

As for the music, some of the Enya-style wailing is really very pretty, but the majority of the songs verge on being pointless. They fail to advance the plot, and the trite lyrics obscure any emotional depth.
The most surprising thing about this production is that none of this seems to matter. Sitting in the stalls feels like being immersed in Middle Earth. Despite its faults, this production is still one of the most impressive I ever seen. If you want a visual feast, this will not disappoint.Emma Whipday