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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 May 2007, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
The West End meets Middle-earth
By Greig Watson
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The Stage
Building the stage meant removing Victorian equipment
The Lord of The Rings stage musical opening in London this summer has cost 8m, needed a crew of 80 to build it and a cast of 50 to perform it.

The historic Theatre Royal, Drury Lane had to be refitted so completely that English Heritage oversaw some of the work.

The new stage alone has 17 pneumatic lifts and three turntables, the wardrobe uses 500 pieces of armour and the actors playing talking trees need 10ft stilts.

"We have pushed theatre to the limit," says production manager Greg Shimmin. "We have two guys just for wind and smoke."

The musical adaptation of JRR Tolkien's literary leviathan is short of only one thing, success.

It opened in Toronto in March 2006 to mixed reviews and closed after six months. This prompted a major review by its creative team.

Big set pieces

The nearly four hour running time has been cut to three, with many scenes and songs completely reworked.

What remains is the sheer scale of the production.

"Other musicals traditionally have a big set piece to close the first half, like the helicopter in Miss Saigon," Mr Shimmin says.

The stage under construction
No one wants to discover we are doing Lord of the Rings at Drury Lane with 10 chairs and a bucket
Rod Howell, set designer
"Lord of the Rings has one of those every 10 minutes."

Mr Shimmin knows a thing or two about big West End shows, having been involved in staging Les Miserables, Phantom and The Lion King - but even he seems impressed by what is around him.

Pointing to the vast space beneath the complex steel framework of the stage, he says: "It's an 1820s building and we are fitting it with what is probably the most sophisticated theatre technology around.

"We had to remove these Victorian pneumatic lifts to fit in our equipment and keep detailed drawings so it can all go back.

"The technology is not in your face. It's not a question of us showing off. I think the balance between the characters and the considerable physical effects is something to be proud of.

"And this emphasis on keeping the heart of the tale makes the set-pieces, like our 45ft spider, all the more impressive when they arrive."

Stage illusions

Rod Howell, the production's set designer, faced the challenge of creating the look of Middle-earth for the stage.

"I went straight to the books. They weren't part of my childhood so I combed through them like I would with any source material.

"It gave me clues for what Middle-earth would be for a contemporary audience walking into a theatre, which is very different to what they would expect walking into a cinema."

James Loye (right) as Frodo in the Toronto production
The stage is formidable. I even got lost on it once.
James Loye, hobbit actor
The result is a tangle of huge roots which reach into the auditorium, designed to make theatregoers feel as if they are being drawn into Middle Earth.

Care has been taken to avoid standard scenery overwhelming the actors. Lighting, digital effects and the shifting stage are used to create an illusion of huge palaces, dense forests and even magical vanishings.

"The most powerful medium in storytelling is the audience's imagination," says Mr Howell. "And while we do a lot of work giving visual clues and prompts, a lot is left to the viewer.

"No one wants to discover we are doing Lord of the Rings at Drury Lane with 10 chairs and a bucket. That could work in some venues but not in a big commercial project in this huge theatre."

He adds: "The aim is that people should feel as if they have been to Middle-earth for three hours."

Lost Hobbit

James Loye, who plays Frodo, says: "The stage is formidable. I even got lost on it once. With these big platforms rising and falling to represent mountains and so on, you have to be in just the right place for each change.

"I think my timing was off and I got completely disorientated as I couldn't see the audience any more. I had to use other bits of the theatre to point me in the right direction."

He adds: "It's a tiring job, it's a huge show. I lost a stone in Toronto.

"In almost every show, towards the end where I am going back to the Shire with Gandalf, I would just think back to the beginning of the performance and it always seemed like days ago."

Previews for The Lord of the Rings open on 9 May

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