To better prepare audience expectations it might have better been titled 'Lord of the Rings - The Pantomime'. Its biggest flaw (and, unfortunately, it has quite a few) is that it doesn't seem to know whether to pitch itself as a slightly camp spoof for fans of the film, or a serious piece of contemporary theatre based on a literary classic. It seems to veer between the two extremes, and comes across as a rather disjointed mess as a result.
"It's better than I thought it would be" was a quote often repeated in the party I was with at last night's 'preview' performance - one of many before the official launch later this month when critical reviews will undoubtedly rush to tear it to pieces. The idea of turning such a weighty literary work into a three hour musical is such a ludicrous conceit that for most of us the production was doomed long before the dreadful notices for its Canadian debut last year started pouring in, resulting in an early transfer to the London stage. So the production is indeed better than I thought it would be or could be, but then my expectations were very very low!
On the tube journey to Heathrow airport this morning (this review is being typed in the airport departure lounge as I head off to Ireland) the morning free-sheet Metro carried a full-page interview with the 'exhausted' director (and also co-writer) of the production in which the poor chap tries desperately to defend his 'musical' as a worthy work in its own right, rather than some cheap cash-in on the success of the oscar-winning films. Cheap the production certainly isn't and it's no surprise to read that the theatre will need to sell at least 3/4 of the seats for an initial year-long run to break even. The good news for those taking the risk and purchasing tickets is that most of the money is there on the stage, and the production is, if nothing else, quite a spectacle. I'm not a fan of West End musicals but I've seen 'Miss Saigon' and 'Phantom of the Opera' and there are set pieces in this production that have more of a 'wow' factor than anything I saw in either of those long-running (and, frankly, seriously over-rated) productions. If only that were enough!
Let's get the main negatives out the way first - a difficult job restricting comments to just a few of them if I'm to keep this mini-review short and blog-like - and start with the music. If something calls itself a musical then it should have good music. This production doesn't. There isn't a single memorable melody or hook. Songs in musicals should further the story. In this production they drag it to a halt and often a slow, agonising death. It's staggering to read that in Toronto the production ran over an hour longer than the 3 hour London version, and that an hour was trimmed out primarily by cutting much of the musical content out. What a horrific endurance test that Canadian production must have been, based on the 'improved, shorter' London version I saw last night.
Music aside, the biggest problem is the complete lack of any characterisation. The hobbits have been turned into dumb village idiots, and even the stronger roles in the book are relegated to uncharismatic characters that one feels no sympathy or empathy for. Too many of the characters seem to have been deliberately made to look like their film counterparts, but without even a smidgeon of that cast's charisma or talent. Most worrying of all for the financial backers, there is no equivalent of Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom or Viggo Mortensen for teenage girls to fall in love with, which means much needed repeat business probably isn't going to happen.
Good-looking leading men aside, Gandalf is particularly ill-served, with the actor too often sounding like he's reading the lines wearily from a script at a read-in he didn't want to attend. When Elrond appears, in a performance that finally delivers on the promise of adding some much-needed depth and resonance, it serves only to show how poor the rest of the leads are. Only the actress playing Galadriel (complete with the apparently essential 'sign language and morse code' trait that all elves in this production have!) and perhaps the actor playing Gollum give anything remotely exceeding what you'd expect from your local amateur dramatics group. Admittedly, the ensemble work hard - the logistics seem to demand that they do so - but there's no real passion or belief in the performances, and too often, especially in the much weaker second half, one feels one's watching a bad spoof where there's a prompt in the wings going 'We're running late. Speed it up. Speed it up. Don't worry about acting. Just get the damned lines out'.
The trouble is that those 'damned lines' are frequently so bad they're positively hokey. Of course the story is a difficult one to compress into 3 hours, but even so, perfectly good lines from the book or film are changed for no apparent reason, often coming across as just crass and meaningless. The plot and repositioning of key elements is all over the place and if you're not already familiar with the book and/or film you haven't a hope in hell of following what's going on.
In the Metro interview the director talks about wanting to produce something that couldn't be reproduced in the medium of film, and the frustrating thing is that in many places he's achieved this. The set designs are amazing and there are moments that are so iconic and breath-taking one is almost convinced that maybe the idea of a 3 hour stage production of the work wasn't such a ridiculous idea after all. Think Cirque de Soleil without quite so much acrobatics and you've got a sense of the spectacle on display. But the whole thing needs a far stronger script than is in evidence here, and a much more talented cast too.
The undoubted star of the show, if there is one, is the large circular stage which contorts itself like some kind of massive, cleverly-engineered musical box throughout the production's run. It's no surprise to learn the mechanics cost over a million and the thing is so intrinsic to most of the action it must use up enough electricity to power a small sub-continent. Either that or it's being powered by the body of the good Professor Tolkien himself, who is surely spinning in his grave at what's been produced in his name here!