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The Lord Of The Rings - The Watermill Theatre Review

Reviewed by Mark Johnson
Disclaimer - ticket was gifted in return for an honest review

Over in rural West Berkshire, something quite extraordinary is happening at the gorgeous Watermill Theatre near Newbury. Back in November 2022 Arts Council England announced that the venue was facing a 100% funding cut, a few months later with staunch determination the venue announced a revival of the musical adaption of The Lord of the Rings. It's a courageous move that certainly pays off.

Nuwan Hugh Perera as Sam and Louis Maskell as Frodo. Photo by Pamela Raith

The musical premiered in Canada in 2006 before playing in the West End at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the production was epic on a scale like nothing before or since. The ambition of the director Paul Hart and the creative team at The Watermill to stage J.R.R. Tolkien's epic beloved fantasy in the intimacy of the venue using the trademark Watermill actor-musician style is bold and really clever.

The venue has been transformed with the gardens becoming The Shire where the Hobbits live and the show is bookended outdoors before being brought inside for the journey to play out. Unfortunately on the day I attended heavy rain meant that the outdoor elements were brought inside - although I'm not sure it lacked not having that experience. 

Condensing Tolkien's 3 novels is no easy task yet Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus have a book that cleverly breaks the whole thing down. In the programme notes McKenna discusses the four strands they focused on and that "anything beyond those four threads was ripe for cutting, eliding of reimagining". The first act focuses solely on The Fellowship of the Ring with the second breezing through The Two Towers and on to The Return of the King. 

At the centre of the story is, of course, The One Ring forged in the fires of Mount Doom by evil Lord Sauron, the ring has come into the possession of a Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, who is celebrating his 111th birthday. Determined for one more adventure Bilbo leaves the ring in the possession of Frodo. With Sauron's forces rising it's left to Frodo to leave his home and set out on an epic quest to destroy the ring and rid Middle Earth of Sauron for good. 

The design of the sweeping landscapes is majestic. The use of space is inventive and magical to watch transform whether that's with projection, puppetry, or lighting. Simon Kenny's simplified staging allows the audience to be drawn into the performances and surroundings rather than being lost in the spectacle. George Reeve's projection moves scenes to different locations and contains a collective of beautiful elements from places like the Prancing Pony in Bree to the volcanic Mount Doom. Rory Beaton's lighting creates great impact, particularly in battle sequences but also for drawing effective emotion from scenes. Adam Fisher's sound adds texture, echo and adds to the vastness of Middle Earth. I won't give too much away from the effects but moments like the Balrog are jaw-droppingly created.

The company of The Lord of the Rings. Photo by Pamela Raith

Louis Maskell is tremendous as Frodo, conveying the right amount of control as the ring bearer which ultimately overwhelms the character. Maskell is believable as the unsuspecting hero who shows little fear in the face of the peril that he faces. Nuwan Hugh Perera is charming as Sam, the friendship created between Maskell and Perera along the journey is fun to watch and equally interesting to watch once the power of the ring consumes Frodo. Together they have a beautiful duet 'Now and For Always' as the pair sing of friendship. John O'Mahony's ever-adventurous Bilbo forms a lovely bond with Maskell's Frodo that creates real warmth when they reunite.

Completing the quartet of Hobbits in the Fellowship are Geraint Downing as Merry and Amelia Gabriel as Pippin. Both have real warmth, bringing cheeky humour to the piece, and are both instantly likeable. 

Aaron Sidwell impresses as Aragorn, transforming from the mysterious 'Strider' that Frodo meets in Bree into the heir to the throne of the world of men with great accomplishments, he's a man of the people. Aoife O'Dea's Arwen matches Sidwell and the pair create a lovely relationship, O'Dea is an ethereal presence entering with harp in a purple haze and her vocals are mesmerising to listen to.

Matthew Bugg's flexible Gollum is excellent, he glides around the theatre in all sorts of contortions. Bugg excels in the dual personality of Gollum and Smeagol sequences as they battle each other.

Sioned Saunders steps into the role of Galadriel and is sensational. She is a constant reminder of the magic that would be lost in Middle Earth if Sauron rises to power once more. Big vocals are on show too especially as we first meet the character in the number 'Lothlorien'. Impressively Saunders plays the role, sometimes with script in hand (there are no understudies for the production), whilst also being the on-stage musical director and playing multiple instruments.

The music by A.R. Rahman, Christopher Nightingale, Värttinä with lyrics by McKenna and Warchus is folk-infused and is re-orchestrated by Mark Aspinall to fit the actor-musician style. It's always great to see the instruments played up close and by such a talented set of musicians. The music is an able companion to the piece.  

Ambition and magic are at the core of Hart's direction and production and this staging of the musical is escaping and full of wonderment. Middle Earth remains vast but in this intimate setting, you really get to feel the heart of the piece. This production will blow you away.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

The Lord of the Rings plays at The Watermill Theatre until Sunday 15th October. Visit or call the box office on 0163546044 to book tickets.

The company of The Lord of the Rings. Photo by Pamela Raith

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