As you no doubt know by now, there is a new production of The Lord of the Rings musical currently playing at The Watermill Theatre; it opened July 25th and runs until October 15th. Last week, staffer greendragon ventured into the Berkshire countryside and found herself in the Shire. Here’s her review of the production:

Sam – Nuwan Hugh Perera – and Frodo – Louis Maskell – with Gollum – Matthew Bugg – sneaking in the background… (Photography Pamela Raith)

The Lord of the Rings restaged

When The Lord of the Rings musical first appeared, in all its (at the time) ‘most expensive musical ever’ glory, I went to see it in London. I was not convinced. The extravagant, elaborate staging could not conceal the fact that the songs were not particularly memorable, and it just seemed like Tolkien’s story wasn’t really suited to this kind of telling. It was not surprising when the show was not the hoped for success.

Rediscovering the piece, in its new, MUCH smaller and more intimate staging, I am closer to being convinced. First of all, the setting is stunning. The audience arrive in a beautiful, bucolic location, where food and drink can be enjoyed by a slowly winding river. A large ring of woven willow decorates the front lawn of the venue. As show time approaches, everyone heads to behind the building – following signs to the ‘birthday party’. So the performance begins outside – where we are all guests at a Long-expected Party. (Though for some reason, it was referred to as a ‘long awaited party’. Perhaps this was a slip of the tongue? As this production is fully licensed by Middle-earth Enterprises, they certainly have the right to use the Professor’s phrase.)

The Shire is the perfect place for music, and so the show gets off to a very strong start. We are swept up in the party atmosphere; I delighted in seeing the Sackville-Bagginses looking suitably annoyed when they learned that Bilbo was making Frodo his heir, and Bilbo’s disappearance was very well handled. As the Shire-folk rushed around, wondering where he had gone, we joined them in their search – heading inside to the rustic wooden theatre.

This very small auditorium – with just under 100 seats downstairs and about the same again upstairs – is brilliantly used in every way possible to tell the epic story. The staging is incredibly inventive, with cast moving through the auditorium – and even climbing over it. Stunning puppets create suitably terrifying Ringwraiths and an astonishing Shelob. Elrond causes the river to rise, the doors of Moria glow, even the Balrog appears; every theatrical trick and device is called into play, including impressive lighting and projections, to create Middle-earth in front of and around the audience – and those watching the night I was there were clearly loving it.

Gimli – Folarin Akinmade – sings a lament in Moria. (Photography Pamela Raith)

An outstanding cast

The cast were mostly excellent. Stand outs for me were Nuwan Hugh Perera as a funny, warm, pitch-perfect Samwise; John O’Mahony’s charming Bilbo; and Matthew Bugg, whose astonishingly athletic and aggressive Gollum managed to be fully his own embodiment of the character, rather than being trapped in an Andy Serkis impression. I loved Folarin Akinmade’s Gimli, and wished the script allowed more time for his relationship with Legolas (Yazdan Qafouri) to be played out; one very touching moment between them towards the end of the show made me want more of these characters. Peter Dukes (Boromir) and Aaron Sidwell (Aragorn) were particularly moving in Boromir’s death scene. Louis Maskell didn’t entirely convince me as Frodo, being perhaps slightly overwrought; but it’s a demanding role which carries much of the show, and overall he proved himself equal to the task. Peter Marinker as Gandalf seemed to be still finding his way into the role, in the early performance I saw.

Condensing the plot

If you’re a Tolkien purist, you’ll may find fault with this version of the story. To fit the entire plot into one evening of theatre naturally requires much pruning and condensing – poor Tom Bombadil and Celeborn don’t make the cut, again! Denethor and Theoden are blended into one, as are the battles of Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields. I think the condensation of the story is skilfully handled; I was more bothered, in a picky purist sort of a way, by the Hobbits wearing sandals – though I do understand the need for safety for actors’ feet!

The costuming – with influences of Bollywood in the elven outfits – is similar to the original production, and the revolving stage is still there (albeit in much smaller form). The show looks and sounds stunning; the cast are also the band, and though it may sound like a strange idea, somehow it works seamlessly when Pippin (the charming and highly energetic Amelia Gabriel) picks up an accordion and starts to play. Certainly in the Shire and at Bree, the songs work wonderfully. I’m still not sure about the rest of the music. Retelling such an intense, literary tale in musical form is not easy; Les Miserables comes to mind as the most obvious, successful literature-to-musical transformation. The writers of The Lord of the Rings musical haven’t quite pulled off this difficult transition, for me. It just doesn’t seem entirely plausible when Arwen and Aragorn sing a (rather Disney-ish) love duet on the eve of battle; but perhaps I’m just cynical.

A climax, and a tearjerker ending

The one song which stayed with me from the original production was Now and for Always – and that is still the high point of the show, beautifully and movingly performed. As the show approached its end, and the Hobbits returned to the Shire, to clear up the damage caused by Sharkey and his ruffians, we headed back outside with them. A sail was now unfurled where once a party banner had been; and I was moved to tears as Frodo made his farewells, and left Sam to carry on the story.

The lights in the party tree… (Photography greendragon)

In spite of my few misgivings, overall this is a beautiful, moving evening of theatre, and a wonderful chance to immerse yourself in Tolkien’s great story. It’s worth the price of admission just to be transported to the Shire. I imagine the producers may be hoping this production will transfer elsewhere after its run at the Watermill Theatre; but even if it does, this is the perfect setting in which to see it. Do go, if you can.

The Lord of the Rings will play at the Watermill from Tuesday 25 July until Sunday 15 October 2023.  Tickets are on sale via