The Lord of the Rings – a musical tale at The Watermill- review

Watermill version of Tolkien musical is small but beautiful

★★★★

Three male actors (Louis Maskell, Matthew Bugg and Nuwan Hugh Perera) in The Lord of the rings A Musical Tale at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury August 2023
Louis Maskell, Matthew Bugg & Nuwan Hugh Perera in The Lord of the Rings. Photo: Pamela Raith

This musical version of The Lord Of The Rings was once a no-expense-spared spectacular that became the West End’s most expensive flop, described by one critic as ‘bored of the rings’.

This revival at The Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Berkshire, is a more modest affair that focuses on the small fellowship at the centre of the story. It relies on the power not of the ring but of acting, and gives more weight to the innate quality of the musical itself.

I have seen the films and read the books, but so long ago it was almost in the Second Age. I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of Sword and Sorcery in general, or Tolkien’s combination of nostalgia and whimsy in particular, so I probably wouldn’t choose to go to this show if I hadn’t been invited to review it. However, I took a major devotee of The Lord of the Rings with me for a different perspective.
When I think of the films, I remember huge battle scenes but, when I think of the books, I remember those ordinary, frightened hobbits finding strength when it’s needed. Director Paul Hart’s emphasis in this version of the musical is very much on the latter, showing the effect war has on the everyday people who are called to serve a cause. This is at the heart of why his magical production triumphs.
The Watermill team has gone all out to make this a special event. When we arrived at the front lawn, we found a hog roast and other food, and a beer and wine stall, perhaps reflecting the hobbits’ passion for food and drink. Then it’s round the back to the Watermill’s garden, a verdant setting perfectly suited to represent the Shires, the bucolic homeland of the hobbits that must be defended. We join the celebrations for Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy first birthday. John O’Mahony combines perkiness with wistfulness in the role of the old hobbit.
It’s here that we first meet our heroes- Frodo and Sam, as well as their fellow travellers Merry and Pippin, and the wizard Gandalf, given an authoritative but kindly demeanour by Peter Matrinker.
Soon the quest to destroy the One Ring and thereby curb the power of the evil Sauron begins, and we transfer to the auditorium where the adventure will take place. You may be relieved, given the current summer, that you can put aside any worry that this might be a largely outdoor production requiring a mac and wellies.
If you’re familiar with The Watermill, you will know that it has a hobbit-scale stage, so Simon Kenny has designed a deceptively bare set to allow room for the many characters and their encounters. However, he has covered the floor and back of the stage in wood that blends with the existing wood of the auditorium to create an all-encompassing atmosphere.
There are double doors at the back, decorated with Celtic knots, and a lift that raises characters above the action. Vivid back projections by George Reeve create a sense of place, from the Elven settlement of Rivendell to the fires of Mount Doom.
Since the floor is empty, it’s mostly down to the quality of the acting of the cast of twenty to create each scene. There are also no concessions to height, even though the story repeatedly makes the point that hobbits are small creatures, so the actors’ achievement is all the greater.
You may gather this is the polar opposite of a spectacular production. We begin, end, and are always rooted in the simple home-loving community of the hobbits, and we see the great war between good and evil from the viewpoint of these ordinary people plus the small band of allies they acquire. We only observe those major battles that so impressed in the films in microcosm, as our heroes engage in one-on-one fights. And the fights, directed by Dani McCallum, are tremendous. There is excitement in buckets as they swing their weapons and duck and dive, sometimes in slow motion, and starkly lit by Rory Beaton.

Great acting is at the heart of the production

Mostly it is the intimacies of the relationships that take centre stage, often in the form of warm or tense exchanges. We witness the growing bravery of the pacifist hobbits, such as the timorous Pippin played by Amelia Gabriel overcoming her fear of trees and the bouncing enthusiasm of Geraint Downing as Merry. We see the warm-hearted but melancholic Frodo displaying inner conflict as the ring tempts him to the dark side (sorry, I’ve gone a bit Star Wars there). It’s a riveting performance from Louis Maskell.
We observe Nuwan Hugh Perera‘s Sam subtly growing from a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed follower to a strong clear-eyed leader as the story progresses. The separated lovers Arwen and Aragorn, played by Aoife O’Dea and Aaron Sidwell, add poignancy. Then there’s the growing respect between the brave but hotheaded dwarf Gimli, played by Folarin Akinmade, and the proud elf Legolas played by Yazdan Qafouri. Tom Giles doubles up as two contrasting leaders- the wise elf Elrond and the scheming wizard Saruman. Peter Dukes (who impressed in The Watermill’s version of Sondheim’s Assassins) reveals bravery and vulnerability as Boromir.
The Lord of the Rings at The Watermill. Photo: Pamela Raith

Not that the production is without spectacle. The most startling and frightening moment comes when a giant spider emerges from the back of the stage and advances on Frodo and Sam. Puppetry designer and maker Charlie Tymms and puppetry director Ashleigh Cheadle deserve credit for that and for some other impressive creatures like the Black Riders.

The intimate nature of this production allows the music to shine. As is a trademark of The Watermill, many of the actors play instruments and sing, beautifully in the case of Yazdan Qafouri and Georgia Louise who also gave an authoritative performance as the Elfin leader Galadriel. The music is by A R Rahman, Värttinä and Christopher Nightingale. The combination of English folk, haunting ballads and Indian style songs works very well in conveying the Peter mood and emotion of the show. There is much exhilarating dancing too choreographed by Anjali Mehra.
It has been described as an immersive production. This is not really the case. We stay in our seats and on the whole the actors stay on the stage. When they don’t though, as when Gollum climbs, almost slithers, around the gallery rail hissing ‘my precious’, it emphasises how much we are part of this journey. Matthew Bugg’s athletic, contorting, slimy Gollum is a star turn, as he wavers between virtue and sin.
The Watermill has been severely hit by the loss of its Arts Council grant, so it’s even more extraordinary that this small theatre in Newbury has been able to achieve what major producers with millions at their disposal were not.
The only reservation I have is that I wished I could have engaged more with these characters and Tolkien’s world of elves and orcs, but there was always a voice whispering in my ear: ‘what a load of tosh’. And, no, that wasn’t the voice of my companion. He loved it and would give it 5 stars.
I loved it too but I do think, at over three hours, it’s a bit too long for the simple story this musical has to tell, and too short to do justice to the complexity of Tolkien’s three weighty books.
The Lord Of The Rings can be experienced at The Watermill Theatre until 15 October 2023. Tickets are available from watermill.org.uk
Paul was given a review ticket by the producer.
Click here to watch this review on YouTube