Review by Daz Gale
An epic story full of thrills and twists is currently playing at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, and the venue hosting it has a story that equals all of that. Classed by many as one of the jewels in the UK when it comes to regional theatres (and one that was on the top of my bucket list to visit), they cruelly had 100% of their funding from the Arts Council England taken away. Whereas that devastating blow could have resulted in a scaled-back production, instead they did the unexpected and announced a production of The Lord of the Rings – one of the most epic stories ever told in a brand new, part-immersive experience that made full use of their space inside and outside (usually anyway). You can’t fault them when it comes to their towering ambition, but after middling reviews of this show when it first premiered, would this production be the one to rule them all?
We all know the story of Lord of the Rings, right? Written by J.R.R. Tolkien from 1937-1949, it has received multiple adaptations across various forms of media ever since, most notably the acclaimed trilogy of movies released in 2001-2003. An epic, sprawling adventure following Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship as they embark on a quest to destroy the One Ring. With multiple stories playing out and the same time and full out battles, it didn’t seem like the most obvious choice of story to turn into a musical, but that is exactly what happened in 2006 when a stage adaptation premiered in Toronto, heading to the West End the next year. Having only lasted one year in the West End, it was widely considered to be a huge flop and hasn’t been seen ever since… until now. Get ready for the Return of the Lord of the Rings musical.
How do you turn three lengthy books into a 3 hour musical? That’s the unenviable task of Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus who take all the classic elements of the story and make the necessary tweaks to adapt it for the stage. It obviously means certain subplots and sequences from the books and movies are lost, but instead we are left with a snappy story that flows quickly from start to finish, never coming up for breath. With a knowledge of what works for the stage, the story of The Lord of the Rings is given new life in a form that works surprisingly well.
McKenna and Warchus write the lyrics with the music created by A.R Rahman, Varttina and Christopher Nightingale to create an incredibly diverse array of music. This is used to inspired effect with three very different sounds to depict different groups. The hobbits get folky music while the elves get a more ethereal sound. Mark Aspinall’s musical supervision and orchestration brings the songs to life, all performed admirably by an actor-muso cast, adding another element to the mix to ensure this is a version of the story like you have never seen before. If I’m being honest, I found the score to not always be completely thrilling though it did feature a few standout numbers including Frodo and Sam’s classic sounding duet ‘Now and for Always’, the gorgeous ‘Lothlorien’ and the instant earworm that is ‘The Cat and the Moon’.
The cast are given a lot to do in this production – as well as the pressure as putting their own spin on iconic characrees, they have to play instruments and interact with the audience in the immersive elements of the show. It might be a tall order but they manage it with ease. Louis Maskell is a captivating lead as Frodo, portraying the central role in a way that feels familiar while also distinctly his own. Nuwan Hugh Perara gives a versatile performance as Sam, full of heart and hilarity. Geraint Downing and Anelia Gabriel form a fantastic double act as Merry and Pippin with Aaron Sidwell delivering a commanding performance as Aragorn. Other highlights among the consistently talented cast are Yazdan Qafouri as Legolas, Aoife O’Dea as Arwen and John O'Mahony as Bilbo.
Perhaps the star of the show belongs to Matthew Bugg in his impressive turn as Gollum. Completely absent from act one, he more than makes up for it with an immediate impression opening act two, again bringing the classic tropes we have come to associate with Gollum while bringing something individual to the mix. In a demanding role, he excels through movement and characterisation in a performance that can only be described as precious. A performer it would be remiss of me to not mention is Sioned Saunders. Usually a member of the ensemble and onstage musical direction, she had her work cut out for her as she had to step in to the shoes of Galadriel at the last minute, following Georgia Louise’s absence. Though she had a book in hand, the way she eased back and forth from her various roles (I would often catch her running from one end to the other) was yet another testament to how integral understudies, swings and alternates are to the continued and successful running of any show.
It is the creative elements of this particular production which makes this such a special show. Paul Hart’s direction is exemplary in every sense, transforming the tiniest of spaces and challenging what can be achieved in this limited stage. With cast members performing through the audience, climbing and appearing on multiple levels, the attention to detail is exquisite and works beautifully with Anjali Mehra’s creative and complex choreography to create something awe-inspiring. Equally impressive is Simon Kenny’s design coupled with George Reeve’s outstanding projection design which leads the stage to look far greater than you might expect for a show of this size. With gorgeous lighting from Rory Beaton and sound from Adam Fisher, this is a production where every element is of the highest quality and comes together to create something truly magnificent.
The unique quality to this production of The Lord of the Rings is that it makes full use of the Watermill theatres picturesque surroundings. Under the pretence of Bilbo Baggin’s 111st birthday party with signs adorning the theatre, the show begins and ends outside, adding something unique and boundary-breaking to the mix. That is in theory anyway. Unfortunately on the day I went, something perilous happened to prevent this. I am of course talking about the Great British Summer with rain so heavy I think I’d have preferred to bathe in the fires of Mount Doom. The show had a contingency plan, however, with all of the action taking place inside. Maybe I missed something extra special by not experiencing the outdoor elements, but the show must go on – and it still manages to amaze from beginning to end.
If ever people see regional theatre as somewhat inferior to the West End, I will point them in the direction of this production of The Lord of the Rings. Challenging expectations and defying peoples beliefs, the Watermill have taken what was a dark time in their history and turned it around to prove how vital they and all the other theatres up and down the country that may not receive the necessary funding are. If this show may not have been a success when it was in the West End, that has more than been rectified now with this meticulously thought out and flawlessly executed production truly impressive from every aspect. While I already loved the story, it is the people that made this production of The Lord of the Rings so exceptional – from the cast to all of the creatives, this show was more than worth the adventure there and back again.
Lord of the Rings plays at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury until 15th October. Tickets from http://watermill.org.uk/The-Lord-Of-The-Rings
Photos by Pamela Raith