Following millions of pounds of investment, the compete rebuilding of the Drury Lane stage and months of rehearsals, The Lord Of The Rings, the West End's most expensive show ever, opened last night. Matthew Amer hoped to be enchanted by JRR Tolkien's tale of a magical land threatened by an all-powerful evil, a fellowship of different races coming together with a common goal, and the inner strength found in the humblest of creatures.
Middle Earth has well and truly come to London and enveloped not just the Drury Lane stage, but also much of the auditorium, bringing the audience into this magical realm. While Rob Howell's entwined roots design stretches out across the boxes, elongating the stage, hobbits catch fire flies among the audience.
It sounds idyllic, but such a world is under threat from a great power that can only be stopped by the destruction of a ring. In such a world lurk creatures unimaginable, yet brought to the stage: huge looming dark riders; tree-herding Ents that tower over the seemingly tiny hobbits; a huge, scuttling spider to make the flesh creep; Orcs, part natural, part machine – with sprung stilts for limbs – engineered by the evil wizard Saruman. Howell has worked hard to give each species its own distinctiveness.
Like Howell, the musical team of AR Rahman, Varttina and Christopher Nightingale have created something otherworldly. Their soundtrack, blending cast-sung tunes with subtler orchestrations, has a folk flavour to it, but takes on different styles to suit characters and races. The hobbits sing drinking songs and tales of times gone by, elf queen Galadriel has a powerful, glorious hymn of hope to cheer and protect the travellers, while other elves take a more ethereal tone.
Among the ensemble, Michael Therriault stands out as the self-loathing Gollum, a skeletal, shaggy looking creature reminiscent of Caliban, barely in control of his body's movements and in a constant state of inner turmoil. Laura Michelle Kelly mixes a magisterial nature with a kind heart and awesome power. James Loye and Peter Howe, as adventuring friends Frodo and Sam, exhibit a dedication and commitment to both the cause and each other to prove that the smallest person can achieve great things.
The task of bringing such an epic tale to the stage always seemed as difficult as that asked of Frodo Baggins, yet stunning sets, a blend of traditional theatre craft with acrobatics and jaw-dropping effects, and a mechanical stage unlike anything the West End has seen before, means that at the end of the story, both quests have been accomplished.