Orclahoma!

"THEATRE LOVES LEGENDARY, monumental flops," says director Matthew Warchus, "and the bigger a show is trying to be, the more hopeful people are that it will fall flat." We are speaking during a break from rehearsals - still going on around the preview performances - of Warchus's musical adaptation of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

With a budget of 12.5 million and a cast of 50, not to mention a whole world of hobbits and wizards and orcs to pack into three hours of stage traffic, it is, indeed, one of the biggest shows ever to hit the West End. And also one of the riskiest.

Warchus knew when he gave in to the pleading of producer Kevin Wallace and signed up to the show four years ago that its flop potential was high. There was always a chance of it slipping into Spamalot-style parody and alienating everyone: diehard hobbit-fanciers, musical fans and the vast swathe of the population latterly turned on to Tolkien by Peter Jackson's cinematic Rings cycle. Moreover, the critical and commercial response to Warchus's show at its Toronto world premiere last year was mixed.

"I said no several times when Kevin first asked me," says the 40-year-old director, whose career has been defined as much by thematic eclecticism and personal self-effacement as by visionary brilliance, embracing classics, opera, the Madness musical Our House and the runaway hit Art.

"It would be easy to do a spoof of Lord of the Rings, and it wasn't immediately obvious how to avoid it being absurd, because of the size of the story," he says. "But when I read the book I realised several things. The first was that Tolkien said it was an exercise in length and density, so he stretched the story out. But if you let that elastic go, it snaps back into something much more concise. And although the dungeons and dragons aspect is not my cup of tea - or, I suspect, Tolkien's - it is a magical and profound work of genius with lots of resonances.

"There are echoes of classic myth, the feeling of lost innocence and a vanishing golden era - you can tell it was written during the Second World War - and a very modern sense that you don't go on a quest to gain riches, but to give up something valuable and destroy it. I was also heartened to find the book is full of songs."

Warchus began to get a feel for the show's stage potential: he'd directed battles in Henry V and created a fairy world in Midsummer Night's Dream, so why not have both in one production? He'd directed Peter Pan twice, so he knew how to make actors fly. "I realised that I could create a piece that celebrated the imaginative power of theatre. It was an excuse to use illusions, flying, wind machines, smoke and music in a way that wouldn't be gimmicky, because the story calls for it. I realised that this was an opportunity to create a show that would make people fall in love with theatre."

An early score by Stephen Keeling and Bernd Stromberger was discarded and a new one commissioned from Bollywood composer AR Rahman (Bombay Dreams) and Finnish folk band Vrttin, aimed at giving each race of Middle-earth a different, ethnic musical theme. After weeks of workshops it was decided to put the human and wizard characters on platform shoes to make the hobbits and dwarves look credibly small, and create the landscapes of Middle-earth through a complex revolving stage as well as sending orcs rampaging through the audience ("that's where we can compete with the films").

Warchus himself assumed co-authorship of the book and lyrics with Shaun McKenna to ensure, as he puts it, that the work of designer Rob Howell, choreographer Peter Darling and musical director Christopher Nightingale "came together in a single vision".

Surely, I say, this also means that if it's a hit it'll earn you more money. "The way you earn money in this business is to do a play with three characters and a white painting," he says drily.

He's talking about Yasmina Reza's Art, which ran for so long with such low overheads in so many countries that it supported him for four years. By contrast, the first production of LOTR, which took place in Toronto because none of the three London theatres of sufficient size was available, closed early after six months and poor reviews. Although the show won several Canadian Dora Awards and was seen by an estimated 420,000 people, it did not make back its budget, which, as in London, was 12.5 million. "It did well enough for people to invest in its further life here but when we realised there wasn't enough of an audience for it to run on in Toronto we closed it early enough to ship the physical production [the set, costumes, props etc] here before the Hudson river froze over" says Warchus. "But if it had truly been a flop in Canada, there's no way we'd be here."

He has learned from the Canadian production. The story has been further streamlined and repointed so characters express emotion rather than simply exchange information. The female human character of Eowyn has been cut and the roles of elf-women Galadriel and Arwen beefed up, while Aragorn's raising of the dead has also been excised to trim the running time.

After the revolving London set suffered similar glitches to Canada's, Warchus has rehearsed "flat-floor" versions of all the battles so the show doesn't have to stop if the technology breaks down. Although several little-known members of the Toronto cast, including the actors playing Frodo and Gollum, are back, London has RSC stalwart Malcolm Storry as Gandalf, and musical stars Jerome Pradon and Laura Michelle Kelly as Aragorn and Galadriel. "Getting the show on in Toronto was like getting an anaesthetised elephant on its feet," says Warchus. "Now it's up and tottering around. Do I feel happy about what will be playing in front of an audience on opening night? I am starting to see light at the end of the tunnel."

The show needs to do 75 per cent business for a whole year to break even. Does he fear the reaction of the London critics, whom National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner condemned recently as old, male and out of touch?

"I survive by not reading critics," he says. "I'm far too sensitive. So, young or old,male or female, black or white, they are too scary for me. I just do my work."

And it must be said that, despite my own misgivings about singing hobbits and tap-dancing orcs, seeing Warchus's name attached to the project convinces me it might just work. This quietly-spoken Yorkshire vicar's son is one of our most deft and subtle directors, and I have rarely seen a production of his - from his heavily-edited RSC Hamlet to his deliriously enjoyable farce, Boeing Boeing - that has not made a show seem fresh and alive.

Just before he began to immerse himself in LOTR five years ago, Warchus married American actress Lauren Ward, who is currently playing the Countess in The Sound of Music, and the couple somehow found the time to conceive Emilia, three, and Dylan, one.

"Dylan was born during the technical rehearsal in Canada," says Warchus. "I walked out of the Lothlrien tech, jumped into a taxi and went to hospital. He was born and I went back to work. But in some ways it's easier to do this show with kids than without. When my daughter says: 'Are you going to work to do the big story, daddy?' it sort of puts things in perspective."

He refuses to speculate about how this risky musical behemoth will go down (the critics will deliver their verdicts after the show's official opening night on 19 June ) but his next project, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a one-man show starring Mark Rylance. "I'm certainly not going to make a habit of doing productions of this scale," he admits. "It's been a great opportunity to create something that is a feast for the imagination, and a workout for a director. You are constantly using muscles you didn't know you had. It's like an extreme sport. I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

• The Lord of the Rings is previewing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, tel: 0870 890 6002. Further information at www.lotr.com

It’s a hard hobbit to break – the expert’s verdict

JOHN GARTH

CRAMMING a 1,000-page epic into a three-hour stage show, you are bound to cut corners. But this adaptation pares JRR Tolkien's masterpiece to the bone.

The epic's weight depends partly on the sense of time passed and distance travelled, but here hobbit Frodo sets off on his quest at the drop of a wizard's hat, and not even the ingenious shifting stage can convey weeks of journeying.

Ten minutes into the show and we are already at the village of Bree - a hundred or so pages into the book - skipping set-pieces such as the terrifying first encounter with an evil Black Rider.

An attack in the wilderness is transferred to the inn. The demonic Balrog and spider-like Shelob, though visually scary, come and go in a flash.

The quasi-Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Rohan is conflated with Romanesque Gondor to create a soulless hybrid "Land of Men". This saves choreographing one more battle; but gone is any hint of warrior-maid Eowyn, war elephants, the army of Dead Men, and much else.

Reducing all to archetype, the makers might as well have mashed Rivendell and Lothlrien into a single elf-demesne and combined the royal elf-women, Arwen and Galadriel.

Gollum's entrance headfirst from the ceiling is spot-on, but where was the warrant for the Hassidic-looking ents, stilt-walking orcs and levitating elves?

Tolkien's forte is wonder, but the chief wonder here is how no one is injured, what with the stilts, flaming torches and robes swarming in semi-gloom across the constantly undulating stage.

• John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War, published by HarperCollins, priced 7.99.

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