One-man cast brings Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' alive in London

A tall man, wearing a rust-colored leather jerkin, knee-pants, a flowing cape , and orange ankle-boots that curled up at the toes, strode onto the stark stage of the Arts Theater here.

He plopped himself down into a wooden chair, introduced himself to the audience as Bilbo Baggins, and -- talking to us like old acquaintances -- set the scene for a two-hour, one-man presentation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

With a movement to center-stage and a change of voice, the actor became Frodo , one of the imaginary hobbits. Another change and he was Sam . . . then Merry and Pippin.

During the two hours the stage came alive with elves, wizards, orcs, hobbits, Black Riders, and other characters from the book -- yet a lone actor recited and portrayed the adventures and misadventures, the battles, the escapes, the tragedies and triumphs of the famous make-believe world.

The mammoth task of adapting the 1,080-page book into one evening's entertainment belonged to Rob Inglis, a transplanted Australian who worked his way to England in 1955 by washing dishes on a Swedish cargo ship. Since then he has written plays and documentaries. He has acted with the Royal Shakespeare, National, and Royal Court Theaters in roles as varied as Shakespeare's Falstaff and Mr. Bumble in the musical "Oliver."

Since 1967 he has performed his own one-man dramatization of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. More recently he has devised another solo show, "Shakespeare in Persons," showing four of the bard's different moods.

"The Rings" was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year to good reviews. Since then Mr. Inglis has toured throughout England. He is taking his performances to the United States next year on two tours, with 15 to 18 performances on each.

The London audience I joined recently hardly moved as Mr. Inglis cleverly changed from character to character, using no props but relying solely on performance. The journey of the hobbits to return and destroy the Golden Ring of the Dark Lord in the fires of Mt. Doon was fast-moving and certainly never dull.

An 11-year-old schoolgirl in the audience, an avid listener to a recent 26 -part radio version of the book on the BBC here, was most enthusiastic. "The production was so well done," she said. "I could imagine all the characters -- it was incredible that only one was on the stage . . . ."

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