The Lord of the Rings

“I would give it six stars if I could!"

This was quite simply a fantastic evening. What this beautiful, but tiny theatre has done in a small space, is nothing short of miraculous! They have used almost every inch of the theatre, and it’s gardens to create Tolkien’s world, and it is spectacular…

Confession time, I’ve not read the books (aside from The Hobbit); I saw the films once. And I’ve never seen or heard the soundtrack for the original London version of the musical at Drury Lane, so I was going in mostly blind.  My daughter, who joined me at the opening night, was the same, and she had not seen the films either. We BOTH loved it!

The show opens in the grounds of the Watermill on the lawn area. It was lovely to spend a little while eating some food and taking in the atmosphere. The gardens are lovely, especially on a summer’s evening, and the ducks and geese wandered around really adding to the atmosphere.  We then went through to the main garden, which has been transformed into the Hobbit’s Shire.

There is a raised circular stage setting the scene with seating and gazebos almost all the way round. At the start, the hobbits mill around with the audience playing games, with lots of banter. Bilbo Baggins wanders around thanking everyone for coming to his birthplace party. Indeed, as you enter the main gardens there is a board sending everyone to Bilbo’s 111st birthday party. 

A lovely touch was the impromptu reaction from some of the cast when a helicopter from one of the local RAF bases flew overhead, and in character, there were lots of comments like “ere, what’s that?” And “is it a bird…?”.

There is then an intro, after which the audience are invited into the theatre. We’d all received a different coloured stamp, on the back of our hands when we arrived, depending on where we were sitting, to alert us, and the staff, to which door we needed to enter when the time came. On the night I was there, this process was very well organised, and the action continued pretty swiftly and seamlessly. I’m sure if the weather is not as kind as it was, and/or there are audience members who struggle, there may be a short delay, but there seemed plenty of staff and volunteers on hand, and the Shire-folk were also helping, whilst staying in character.

The set worked well in the theatre. There are four long ladders that double up as towers, trees, etc. and from which some of the characters use in very creative and often gymnastic affect.  A lift was at times also used, as was a revolve, both to great effect.  It’s all really clever, and the design team deserve a special round of applause.

The lighting, sound and use of projections and other effects are all fantastic. The design of this production is superb.  No spoilers, but lots of really effective surprises!

As to the performance, this is a true ensemble piece. There was not a weak link. And whilst actor-musician shows are The Watermill’s speciality, I have never seen this done better. The musicianship and singing is of the highest quality. The music, is mainly set in a folk style, but there is also a good use of brass and percussion, especially well used to create a sense of foreboding when needed. It’s a fantastic mix of drama, magic and earthiness, and is extremely effective.

As I have said, it’s a true ensemble, so unfair maybe to single out individuals, but there are some standout performances. 

Aoife O’Dea’s is an enchanting Arwen, and the singing is noticeably ethereal and unworldly. Georgia Louise’s Galadriel is also incredible. It was not just the gold dress that lit the stage when she was on! It was a very strong performance by both.

Amelia Gabriel as Pippin and Geraint Downing as Merry play off each other well with a real sense of fun and adventure.  Aaron Sidwell as Aragorn and Yazdan Qafouri as Legolas also impressed.

Nuwan Hugh Perera as Sam, Frodo’s loyal companion gave a charming performance, and really played up the friendship and loyalty for Frodo.

John O’Mahony as Bilbo and Peter Marinker as Gandalf look and act just as you would expect both of these central, iconic characters. 

Matthew Bugg as Gollum gives a fantastic performance, creepy, chilling and yet occasionally vulnerable. He was also incredibly physical. 

Louis Maskell’s Frodo is so well rounded.  The hero of the piece is flawed as well as heroic.  He and Matthew Bugg especially, at very effectively, and controllably, gave masterpieces in physical theatre.

What the Watermill has managed to achieve is nothing short of a miracle. In that intimate space, they have produced an epic show. At times it is jaw-dropping. At others funny, moving or chilling and creepy. Everyone involved should feel proud of what they have achieved.

This is how to do an actor-musician show.  All in all, this is a phenomenal production. Honestly, get yourselves down to West Berkshire! 

This show was reviewed on the 1st August.  The Lord of the Rings runs at the Watermill Theatre until the 15th October 2023.  Tickets available here: THE LORD OF THE RINGS (watermill.org.uk)

Review written by Ruth Hawkins

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Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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