The Lord of the Rings musical review, Watermill Theatre, Berkshire

When it came to the West End in 2007, “The Lord of the Rings” was a “notorious flop”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. A spectacular mega-musical, incorporating folk, Bollywood influences and pop, it had cost a record-breaking £12.5m to stage, at the 2,000- seat Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and closed after 13 months. So this “enchantingly intimate”, scaled-down staging at the lovely Watermill Theatre, outside Newbury, is a form of redemption for the show. 

Directed by Paul Hart, it draws in its audience with magnificent “clarity and verve”, said Judi Herman on What’s On Stage. Breathtaking set and costume design; shrewd lighting; thrilling sound, projection and choreography; inventive puppetry and fight direction – all these elements have been blended “seamlessly and with wondrous imagination to tell the sweeping tale in little more than three hours”. 

Controversially, this delightful theatre lost its entire Arts Council funding last year, said Clive Davis in The Times. Here, it “weaves magic on a budget that might not even cover a month’s sandwiches on a Peter Jackson film set”. Hart makes impressive use of the Watermill’s unique spaces, said Dave Fargnoli in The Stage. The performance begins outdoors on the venue’s riverside lawns, with “cheerful hobbits capering and singing as they gather for the long-awaited party at which a fateful secret will be revealed”. Later, the action “plays out among the atmospheric wooden beams and benches of the intimate auditorium”. The evening is not flawless: it is an “overstuffed” musical that remains clunky in places, and non-Tolkien aficionados might struggle. But it’s playful and energetic, and contains moments of real wonder. 

The 20-strong cast, many of them actor-musicians, are superb, said Mark Lawson in The Guardian. In particular, with his extraordinary ability to contort both his torso and his vocal cords, Matthew Bugg as Gollum “makes a formidable case for the superiority of Equity members over CGI”. This “spectacle of compression, by aiming small, brings big rewards”.

The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Berkshire (01635-46044; Until 15 October. Rating ****