One show to rule them all: The Lord of the Rings comes to life on stage

After an eight-year quest, 'The Lord of the Rings' opens tonight. Nicola Christie visits rehearsals to see how high technology is bringing the magic of Tolkien's Middle Earth to life on stage
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I find my way up to the stage, passing paraphernalia that document the previous inhabitant of this theatre, The Producers. I'm almost knocked out by a giant black horse, aka a Black Rider, whinnying in the wings. In the poor lighting, I think it's real. Just how full-on is this musical spectacular going to be if they bring horses in for 16 weeks of rehearsals, never mind the run?

Then I detect a man standing inside the "horse" on giant metal stilts. It turns out that he's "riding" the material-clad head and conducting the horse's movements via poles he operates with his arms, not unlike the way the animals conduct themselves in The Lion King. "Are you all right up there?" I call up. "Fine, thank you." Very good.

I bump into Frodo Baggins. His cheeks are very rosy and he's wrapped up in tweeds and breeches, with a fluffed-up wig of hair. He's also rather fat. "This is the most rotund you'll see me," James Loye says. "Here's my fat suit. Want to feel it?" Well, why not. "And my buttock cheeks?" Maybe not. "I change into different fat suits as the show progresses because I start to lose weight with the stress of carrying the Ring. By the end, I'm an emaciated wreck."

It has taken these hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, Rangers and Riders eight long years to get here. Long before Peter Jackson's films, there was a grand plan to put Middle Earth on stage. The problem was that the rights had to be obtained, a theatrical script had to be created out of the long, unwieldy novels and a team had to be assembled who could handle the huge project.

There was also the issue of finding a theatre large enough to house the mighty show. "That's why we opened in Toronto," says the production assistant Doug, who's met me at the Theatre Royal's stage door and set about introducing me to the Lord of the Rings operation.

That's the right word for this enterprise. In the stalls, all the seating has been removed to accommodate what looks, feels and sounds like a giant spaceship's control room. Headsets, computer screens, flashing buttons and weird keyboards (musical ones, too) are everywhere. More homely items, such as kettles, printers, glue sticks, Post-it notes, scripts, scores and the occasional banana are also scattered about.

Copies of the Complete Guide to Middle Earth and JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings are lying on one of the black-clothed desks for reference. I locate where we are in the action: Chapter 9, "A Knife in the Dark". "They could all see the black specks, but neither Frodo nor Merry could make out their shapes for certain; yet something told them that there, far below, were Black Riders assembling on the Road beyond the foot of the hill..."

Matthew Warchus, the director, interrupts my brief dip into Tolkien to cue the actors. He's seated in the centre of this technical frenzy, with a microphone. "Right, can we take it from 'Flight to the Ford', please. Frodo and Sam, I need you on the stage. Also Strider. Rangers, can you be ready for your cue? And Riders, you can go without stilts for this one... I'm going to count six in... and swords, please!"

Cut to a little huddle of frightened, bewildered hobbits picked out by a spotlight on an almost black stage, being herded to safety by Strider, who has just appeared before them (he will later be revealed to be Aragorn). He hands out swords to each of the little chaps. "I would rather have a hoe," cries Sam.

And then the music kicks in - a mix of Indian exotic (the superstar Bollywood composer AR Rahman) and Finnish tribal chanting and beats (the band Varttina) - and the floor starts lifting to create a bridge the hobbits run along to escape the Black Riders. It's chase music, but Middle Earth's version of it. And on come the Rangers, tall, strong, mysterious forms who weave a spell of protection over the frightened hobbits. Their moves are almost balletic, but strong, very simple, gliding turns, holding long stick-like poles.

The choreographer Peter Darling - last stage show, Billy Elliot- is watching intently. "Stop there, please," Warchus cries. The 16 lifts that pick the stage up and down to varying heights, which give the impression of an unsteady bridge, are not kicking in at the right time. I know this because I've been given headphones to listen to all the communication behind every second on stage. The crew have been told: "Nicola from The Independent is listening in now, so please keep language clean..."

Darling is talking to his Rangers, cloaked in brown hoods and coats. "What I'm looking for is a graceful form of aggression. Tolkien described you as being silent of foot, very in touch with the earth. I want you to move as if you are from a tai chi world, you're dancing a sort of spiritual, martial arts dance."

Later, I spot Darling standing at the corner of the stage, lost in thought. Then, he suddenly breaks into a sort of rural step aerobic. "I'm working out the dance the hobbits do at the inn," he explains. "Theirs is shortened movement. I want to create the idea that they exist in a small box; it's a small world, they're not interested in what's across the river, they're content with the boundaries of their world. They have a conservative attitude to step."

"And we'll take it again, please," Warchus calls out. "Hobbits, can you move a little quicker this time. One, two, three, four, five and six... and swords." On come the Rangers, weaving their way about the stage with their poles, guiding the hobbits to safety. It all feels solid and simple, yet the entire stage is a mighty, layered display of lighting, music and movement.

And the stage floor isn't even dressed yet. Come showtime, the mass of black roots and twigs that frame the action at the sides will be extended into the auditorium, up to the ceiling and around the boxes. The music supervisor Chris Nightingale and his keyboard will be replaced by a full orchestra. This one scene,lasting barely a minute, has taken almost five hours to get right.

"It's turning maths into emotion," says Warchus. He gestures to the command centre spilling out around him. "All of this is just a turbo engine to add push. It's about helping the audience simply relate and feel emotion. But people will be watching characters in a situation. This is simply to support that."

I ask about the words "poor theatre" scribbled on a pad in front of him. "For all the technology firing this production, I wanted it to be simple, organic, for it to have a texture and an earthiness to all its ideas," he says. "Tolkien was obsessed with trees, the earth, stone, water, the natural world. From the beginning, we wanted not so much to make a musical of Tolkien's world as to find a stage language to meet his.

"So, if you break down that scene you've just watched, the Rangers are just using sticks. They could be tribal, they could be trees, they could create power, they could be providing an object for other people on stage to climb over. It's the earliest, most primitive form of theatre. It is two vocabularies of theatre meeting. I want to show audiences all the things that are amazing about theatre in one show."

'The Lord of the Rings', Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2 (0870 240 2978), previews start tonight