Loc Lu (Leif Norman)
Bilbo Baggins has emerged from his hobbit-hole to make a return appearance at Manitoba Theatre for Young People. And while this production of The Hobbit doesn't shine quite like, say, a dragon's treasure hoard, it provides more than enough visual bang to captivate young theatre-goers.
The story in this Lord of the Rings prequel is a now-familiar heroic quest: hobbit (tiny folk, hairy feet, love breakfast) Bilbo Baggins (Herbie Barnes, who played the same role in MTYP's 2000 production) is convinced by the wizard Gandalf (David Warburton) to join a band of dwarves (tiny folk, hairy faces, love drinking) on an epic quest to retrieve dwarven treasure from the dragon Smaug.
Along the way, there are encounters with nasty trolls, goblins, unfriendly elves... all of which have become staples in the fantasy genre since J.R.R. Tolkien's novel was originally published in 1937 (adapted here by Kim Selody). So it's a good adventure yarn, but also stays true to Tolkien's theme - that even the smallest, least likely of people (or hobbits) can become heroes.
The Hobbit is a big story, and this version stays pretty faithful to the original tale. On the downside, that means cramming a lot of story into 90-or-so minutes, and it sometimes feels like the story is rushing a bit at the expense of fleshing out characters. The adaptation relies heavily on some over-serious narration to move us from scene to scene, which saps a bit of fun out of the experience.
That said, this production (directed by Herbie Barnes, with Ron Jenkins as associate director) delivers plenty to hold the attention of kids. Most notable is some very creative staging - the main seating area is actually on the floor of the MTYP space, and the action takes place in a "theatre-in-the-round" setting. There are some seats up in the main audience area, but the play is staged in such a way that people sitting on the floor will get the most out of it. (You might want to bring something soft to sit on - there's a stretch break, but not until about an hour in).
The production looks absolutely wonderful, thanks to designer Linda Leon, who transforms the MTYP space into everything from forests to Smaug's lair with great style... and speaking of Smaug, his appearance near the show's end is a fantastic bit of stagecraft.
Most of the eight-person cast take on multiple roles, and there's some fine work: Barnes is likably innocent as Bilbo; James Durham does a great, twitchy Gollum; and David Warburton has a nice sense of mischief as Gandalf. The other characters are too little seen to really be distinct, but David Gillies' King Thorin could use a little more dwarven swagger.
The really important question is: will it entertain the kids? The answer is yes. There's certainly enough stylistic bang to keep the youngsters hooked, and the theatre-in-the-round presentation style makes the audience very much a part of the action. There are, though, some quite intense scenes - the evil goblins who attack Bilbo and his company can be quite scary, as can Smaug. You could perhaps take a very brave five-year-old, but it'll probably work best for the six to twelve-year-old crowd.
Tolkien purists may be less enraptured, but if you don't take your hobbitses too seriously, this Hobbit has plenty to offer.
Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer (CBC)