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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 02:13 GMT
Curtain up for Rings stage show
By Lee Carter
In Toronto

Gandalf.  Photograph Manuel Harlan
Canadian actor Brent Carver plays Gandalf

The team behind the stage version of Lord Of The Rings have been slogging through a journey almost as epic as the one they are depicting through Middle Earth.

More than four years in the making and at a cost of $25m (14.3m), it has become the world's most expensive theatre show to date.

And its global future as an enterprise hangs on its opening night in Toronto, Canada, on Thursday.

Producer Kevin Wallace - formerly with Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Really Useful Group - first came across Shaun McKenna's early draft of his stage adaptation of Lord of The Rings in late 2001.

After acquiring the rights to stage the show, by 2003 he had formed a team that included some of the gold standard veterans of the London theatre scene.

But the lack of an available theatre in London that could take on the scale of the show, precipitated a move to Toronto, after Broadway was ruled out.

"I think that the sensibility, culturally here is closer to London," said director Matthew Warchus.

"Certainly it's less pressurised, which is absolutely right when you need to create a new piece."

Hollywood influence

The ultimate plan is to create a replica show in London's West End by March 2007 and a US production that could begin touring in 2008.

The Canadian show stars home-grown actor Brent Carver as Gandalf, the young British actor James Loye in the role of Frodo and Richard McMillan as the devious wizard Saruman.

Among the many challenges facing the team has been to remain faithful to Tolkien's original work and satisfying his sometimes rabidly pedantic fans, while also creating a commercial enterprise that appeals to those who may have never read the books.

Lord of the Rings stage show.  Photograph Manuel Harlan
The show lasts more than three hours

Another challenge has been to cleanse the stage production of any corroding influences from movie director Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning trilogy.

"I avoided the films completely," said designer Rob Howell, adding that "swimming around the books" was the best and only reference point.

Loye, 26, said he had seen the films but never read the books.

"But once I got the part I thought I ought to read them," he added.

He also says he was surprised how strongly he relates to his character.

"There are parts I've played where I've had to take some quite big steps to meet the character. I don't feel I've taken too much of a step to find Frodo.

"I'm quite suited to it as I'm quite short and from the West Country," he laughs.

Special effects

Loye says his jaw still drops when he watches some of the stage trickery when he is standing on the sidelines.

The show dispenses with conventions such as backdrops to move from scene to scene and set-to-set, using instead a number of techniques, devices and special effects to make the journey more fluid.

Sets change in an instant from a tranquil woodland to a ferocious battle scene and the theatre, reputed to be the most modern, largest and state-of-the-art in Canada, has had its resources stretched to capacity.

Whether it will all come off on the night has been a source of speculation, with the Toronto Star newspaper reporting that "a backstage battle of epic proportions has been ferociously waged to wrestle Lord of the Rings into a manageable time and shape for Thursday's premiere".

James Loye
James Loye previously starred in BBC drama Dunkirk

Certainly there do seem to have been some quite serious teething problems since the show first started previewing in early February.

Early performances reportedly stopped dead because of various technical malfunctions and accidents.

Lines and characters have been fine-tuned, and to bring the play down to a just-manageable three-and-a-half hours, sections had to be ruthlessly chopped.

Initial audience hostility also led to some complex sections being smoothed out and simplified - something preview audiences have reportedly reacted to more warmly.

Producer Kevin Wallace has admitted that some audience members were expecting a more conventional musical rather than the somewhat artistic endeavour on offer.

But he says he is confident that those first faltering mistakes have been corrected, and believes the power of Tolkien's original story will ultimately carry the show.

"It's about this world of beauty and love and complexity that's on the brink of destruction," he says.

"That's the story and that's the heart of the evening."

See scenes from the musical Lord Of The Rings

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