The LOTR Movie Site
April 16, 2000

A Review of "The Hobbit", presented at the Edinburgh Playhouse by Vanessa Ford Productions
J.P. (Faramir)

The first point to be made in this review is that, on leaving the theatre, both myself (a Tolkien veteran) and my friend who accompanied me (a Tolkien virgin) were both intent on reading "The Hobbit" (or rereading in my case) as soon as possible. I hope this can be seen as a testament to what was generally a wonderful production, vivid in conception and presentation and conveying with great enthusiasm, and affection, the themes and tone of the novel, although perhaps not all the details thereof.

Michael Geary as Bilbo was fantastic, all the things a hobbit should be. The obvious height problems with staging "The Hobbit" were ingeniously solved by one very simple device - the actor playing Gandalf (Bill Sleigh, also very impressive) was extremely tall, and was wearing heeled boots and a very tall hat. The effect of this was that Bilbo and the Dwarves appeared tiny beside him (they were played by adult men of slightly less than average height) and, as Gandalf is the only "human" to be in their company for the vast majority of the first Act, the audience is so used to seeing Bilbo and the Dwarves as considerably shorter than the "humans" that the fact that Thorin was almost the same height as Beorn was barely noticeable. A major surprise was the fact that Thorin’s company consisted of Thorin, Balin, Bombur, Kili and Fili - only 5 dwarves! This seemed a very odd change although it was obviously necessary on a purely practical level, and if one could suspend the memory of Oin, Gloin et al was soon un-noticeable.

After a confusing start (a series of strobe-lit "snapshots" of the Battle of Five Armies) we saw Bilbo happily pottering around his home. The arrival of Gandalf and the Dwarves, and the decision to set out on the mission, probably took about 10 minutes, which I assumed would set the pace of the show generally. This was to be a poor assumption - the rest of the play rattled along at a tremendous pace, which was impressively maintained by the cast.

The Stone Trolls were, it has to be said, laughably awful - one of few real faults I could find with the costumes, which were always interesting if not always what I had pictured myself, with our five dwarves in particular being wonderfully clad. The big disappointment in this area was Gandalf’s hat, which, though very tall and extremely pointy, didn’t have a brim! However this was made up for by the splendid pyrotechnics which semed to accompany Gandalf’s every exit, entrance and interaction with a bad guy.

The Stone Trolls were dispatched in short order and before we knew it we were in the court of Elrond, described as an "Elven-Prince of Rivendell" in the programme. The Elves leaped around carrying sparklers, spoke with strange Irish-sounding accents, and were bizarrely dressed in golden lycra with poncho-type dresses draped over them, their faces painted gold, and with very odd wigs, or hats, which looked rather like bird-cages. Elrond himself wore a green garment which looked desperately like a mattress. We spent roughly three minutes in his company before the heroes were on the road again. The action went very very quickly at this point, and within five minutes of Elrond’s exit, the Goblin-King was dead! The fighting between Dwarves and Goblins was strangely choreographed, as were most of the fight scenes - there was lots of leaping and spinning. The Goblins looked intriguingly like the product of an unholy union between a beetle and a rabbit - they were all hunched over and seemed to be wearing some kind of chitinous backpack/armour, as well as some very odd rabbit’s-ear-like protrusions on the tops of their heads.

The death of the Goblin King seemed to put a bit of a break on the speed of the performance, and the riddling scene between Bilbo and Gollum was very impressive. Gollum seemed half-Goblin, half-Hobbit, and spoke in a maddening sing-song voice which very effectively conveyed the character. The invisibility effect of the Ring was very effectively done, again using some pyrotechnics and special lighting effects.

However, once Bilbo escaped we were at break-neck speed once again, and it was only moments until we met Beorn, who reminded me of nothing so much as the character "Blanka" from Street Fighter II - that big green and orange monster-type thing. This meeting gave rise to the most bizarre interlude in the play, as the Northmen and the Dwarves demonstrated their alliance through the medium of line-dance. This was instigated by the Northmen, who danced quite sedately to a lilting Irish jig, and were cautiously observed by the Dwarves. The latter were then invited to join in and a drum beat cut in under the happy dancing music, and within moments the entire cast was involved in an extremely odd dance. Personally my favourite contribution to the dance was that of Bilbo, who shunned the traditional line-dance approach of the others and instead stood on high and spun around and around in a circle very fast, his cloak streaming around him.

Beorn and his line-dancers having departed, and after an amusingly overlong episode involving Bilbo and the Dwarves swinging on a rope across the Black Stream, the first Act ended rather abruptly with Bilbo alone in Mirkwood, calling for Gandalf as the Dwarves screamed and disappeared one by one.

Act II opened with a huge spider dropping onto Frodo from the sky; he dispatched it and named his sword "Sting". The Wood Elves - again, painted gold with golden Lycra costumes - entered and took the Dwarves and Frodo prisoner, placing him in a cell with Thorin. The escape of the Dwarves went as should be expected, but for the fact that there were still only five plus Frodo.

The Master of Laketown was a hysterically pompous man with what obviously looked like a cushion shoved up the front of his costume. Again the pace of the performance was rather frenetic here, and after the Dwarves had had another dance, this time with the Lakemen - it was even more impressive, as it involved staffs and spinning around the stage in a huge circle - it can’t have been more than 20 minutes into the second Act that Frodo approached Smaug’s chamber for the first time. The dragon was bafflingly portrayed - first of all, the back of the stage was taken over by what looked like an enormous puppet, only the head and neck showing over the back of the set. On Frodo’s second visit, the Dragon began to speak. About a third of the way into Smaug’s speech, the actor who had played Gollum opened a zip in the Dragon’s throat and appeared dressed in a strange red raggedy-looking costume. He was presumably representing the Voice of Smaug and wandered freely around the stage, finally disappearing into Smaug’s throat again without any type of explanation.

Everything went as would be expected through the death of Smaug and Bard’s instigation of a siege of Thorin’s stronghold unless he paid recompense to the people of Laketown. Bard himself had obviously been adopted as the nearest thing to a dashing hero as could be found in the play, and if so was suitably debonair in his black leather. The timely reappearance of Gandalf was as much warning as we got of the Battle of the Five Armies, which all of a sudden was upon us - this was very interesting indeed when presented onstage by 24 actors! Helpfully the program did include a map of the battle, and an explanation of each of the Five Armies, which was accompanied by a letter-by-letter translation guide to the Runic alphabet, a summary of historical references to dragons from the "real" world, and half an A4 page dedicated to a brief summary of the history of Middle Earth in its entirety.

Thorin’s death was suitably moving, and the last scene of the play was particularly memorable - Bilbo’s return to the Shire was cut, but as Gandalf left him in Erebor we saw Bilbo furtively watch him leave, then take out the Ring and gaze at it for a long moment. A spotlight on Bilbo narrowed impossibly until we had a brief moment of a spotlight on the Ring alone before the stage went dark.