Ring cycle: Gandalf, Christopher Robbie, and Bilbo, Peter Howe contemplate the adventures to come

The Hobbit

Wolverhampton Grand

***

THE problem with bringing JRR Tolkien's scene-setter for Lord of the Rings to the stage is that any stage is not really big enough.

It is a small book but a long, epic journey which paints a broad canvas ready for the entrance of the classic trilogy. Somehow having the hard working cast of 13 scrambling up and down scenery for no apparent reason, heading off stage  in one direction and coming back from another doesn't really convince you they are travelling very far.

To add to their problems, these days, there is the inevitable comparison with Peter Jackson's £200 million Lord of the Rings films and when it comes to special effects . . . well this is more panto than Hollywood..

The giant spider is effective if only the collection of flying wires were not so obvious while the dragon is big but as we worked out pretty quickly that only his head moved the scariness dropped quite a few notches.

The book is about goblins, trolls, elves and wolves and the like which saw a motley collection of ragged costumes and blokes running about in wolf heads which is heading towards "it's behind you" territory.

FORMATION DANCING

We even had what appeared to be the Davy Crockett formation dancing team with a ho-down from the woodsmen in Beorn's Hall. All it needed was Duelling Banjos and we could have been in Deliverance.

Whether it was an attempt to cram the whole story in I don't know but none of the characters were allowed to develop and two dimensional was as much as you got. Too often emotion was expressed merely by shouting.  It was a struggle to care about what happened to any of the characters.

The book is quirky and full of charm with gentle humour. That is all singularly missing from this adaptation but as the Vanessa Ford production is on its third tour in eleven years it can at least be credited with longevity.

For anyone who has not read The Hobbit, or Lord of the Rings, following the story is probably a challenge and although with a cast of 13 playing all the characters in the book there has to be some doubling up but getting Gandalf (Christopher Robbie) and his Father Christmas white beard, to double up, with a strange accent, as The Master of Laketown must have confused a lot of youngsters in the audience.

"Why is Gandalf pretending to be someone else dad? Is it a disguise?" 

Peter Howe made a fair fist of Bilbo but to be fair the script gave him little scope to develop the character and much the same could be said of Andrew Coppin's Thorin Oakenshield while Christopher Llewellyn had the most difficult task as Gollum.

EXCHANGE RIDDLES

The film version with the voice of Andy Serkis is the definitive portrayal.  Llewellyn made a fair fist of being his own stoor hobbit, Sméagol. The scene with Bilbo when Baggins has found the ring and the two exchange riddles inside the depths of a mountain is the only scene which manages any tension.

Some of the special effects had a novelty of their own such as the rope thrown across the black stream in Mirkwood. Throw it off stage left and it miraculously appears swinging in from the flies stage centre.

As mentioned earlier the giant spider was effective, if only they could disguise the flying wires better and the dragon was impressive at first sight. But once you realised only his head moved and there were no flames or smoke he wasn't really that scary.

The scenery though was inventive with two hulks which turned to provide cliffs, harbours, halls, caves, mountains – whatever the script called for.

The story though was perhaps too much to cram in for the time, and even that was perhaps a tad long for little ones, so we are down to bare bones of narrative and characters who have no time or opportunity to develop.

It opens with a stylised battle scene which is never explained and closes with Bilbo apparently suffering stomach cramps, again with little explanation. Curtain calls saw a return of the ho-down with most of the cast involved which had the audience clapping along happily enough.

It seemed overlong, a bit of a plod but, that being said though, there were enough children talking excitedly about it in the interval and at the end to suggest they had enjoyed it and if it brings children to live theatre and fires their imagination to experience more then The Hobbit has done its job.

 It runs to 13-03-2010 and reappears in the Easter holidays at the Alex for a week's run on March 30.

Roger Clarke 

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