The journey to become a celebrated literary figure was a long and trying one for John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In his youth, he loses his mother and is henceforth brought up by stern Father Francis. When the romance between Tolkien and Edith Bratt starts to blossom, Francis forbids him to see her again. John prioritises his studies and spends his leisuretime promoting the values of nature, mythology and language with his friends G.B. Smith, Christopher Wiseman and Robert Gilson. Three years pass, and he manages to win his beloved Edith back – alas, the couple is immediately torn apart again when war breaks out. The war marks another period of loss for Tolkien: of friends, faith in humanity and his will to write. He takes on a position as university professor, but it takes the combined efforts of Edith and the new-found friends Warren and C.S. Lewis to nurture back the imaginative author John used to be. In remembrance of his old values and friends, Tolkien completes and publishes The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In this unique pre-staging of the musical, 5-star performers from the West End channeled sufferings of war and linguistic obsession. Lewis Greenslade, who plays the eponymous writer, inhibits the stage without break but guides through the show with ease. Graham Foote portrays G.B. Smith with such charm and loyalty to his friend, his loss is gravely felt, and Sarah Joyce’s voice and presence as Mabel Tolkien are haunting. Composer and lyricist Joseph Purdue, whose brainchild and passion project this musical seems to be, does a wondrous job of echoing the grandeur of Tolkien’s tales in melodical form, without resorting into copying scores of The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings adaptations. Every song is a showstopper and lends itself to the artists’ most emotional performances. The showcase was captivating, even without fancy set design or props.
On the other hand, it screams for a bigger stage and beautiful sets to strike a balance with the grandiose music. Certain scenes and songs seemed so epic and play on such a big scale, they need underlining – which will hopefully happen once this gets an official West End debut. The one thing that could be worked on is the connection between the scenes, as now sometimes the play is almost a bit “too chronological” – things just happen, one after another, without one clear overarching goal.
However, the music and lyrics pick up themes and connect storylines in such a way that the story becomes almost redundant…just as long as the actors’ sheer voice power carries on. A great Tolkien fan myself, it was touching to see his life portrayed with such devotion and respect, and I cannot wait to see the full production of this show.
Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent