ONE of the best loved tales of all time, The Hobbit is the story of an epic quest through strange lands where creatures of myth and legend engage in extraordinary flights of fantasy and imagination.

The beauty of JRR Tolkien’s enduring Oxford-penned adventure is its vivid evocation of fanciful places and beings and epic spectacles – taking readers to a magical realm where anything is possible, no matter how fabulous and improbable.

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Given its monumental extravagance, it comes as no surprise to learn that Peter Jackson’s trio of Hobbit films was the most expensive movie production of all time – costing somewhere in the region of half a billion dollars.

The prospect of bringing the book convincingly to a stage then, is surely sheer folly – and without the kind of budget that would make Jeff Bezos blanch, pure madness.

Try telling that, though, to the talented cast and crew of Oxford’s Magdalen College School, who last week captivated audiences at the Oxford Playhouse with a production of JRR’s classic which thrilled, charmed and delighted as it carried us away on its enchanting odyssey.

In a poignant twist, the saga – adapted for stage by director and writer Alex Thomas, produced by Natasha Prince, and with original music by John Mann – is introduced as a bedtime story told by a lavishly bearded grandfather to comfort his grandson during a Second World War air raid.

Oxford Mail: The Hobbit by Magdalen College School at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Andrew Walmsley

As the tale begins, the storyteller morphs into the wizard Gandalf and the young lad into our plucky Hobbit hero, Bilbo Baggins.

As we slide from a back garden in blitzed London to Middle Earth, the sinister image of a German bomber at the back of the stage transforms into a swooping dragon. The family’s grimy Anderson shelter, meanwhile, metamorphoses with deft stagecraft into a Hobbit hole – Bilbo’s home in the bucolic Shire and the starting point of his mission to the Lonely Mountain with a rag-tag company of loveable fellow adventurers who come tumbling through the door.

With polished performances, slick direction, professional technical production, and a specially composed score played live by a band of talented musicians, it was clear from the off that this was not going to be any normal school production.

Oxford Mail: The Hobbit by Magdalen College School at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Andrew Walmsley

Acting was creative, confident and convincing with strong, natural delivery – the young cast bringing their iconic characters to life without resorting to emulating the familiar film depictions. Incredibly, many of the cast had only just finished their exams and had not set foot on the Playhouse stage until the start of the week.

It is impossible to mention all the standout performances among such a talented cast, but it would be remiss not to single out Davey Chataway as Bilbo. A clearly talented actor, he made the character his own, brilliantly portraying the Hobbit’s transition from bewildered, comfort-loving innocent to courageous hero as his journey progressed.

Theodore Riviere was excellent as a messianic Gandalf – the teenager brilliantly conjuring up the wisdom, gravitas and stubbornness of the ancient wizard whose age is said to stretch into the tens of thousands of years.

Oxford Mail: The Hobbit by Magdalen College School at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Andrew Walmsley

Sir Ian McKellen, who brought Gandalf to the big screen and is a keen supporter of the Oxford Playhouse – would surely have approved.

A commanding James Pearson was spot on as Thorin Oakenshield, channelling the dwarf leader’s posturing bravado, soldierly ambition and pride – and with a great singing voice to boot.

Another favourite was Golem – Nick Heard perfectly capturing the unfortunate creature’s wretched physical form and nailing his curious speech pattern – barely suppressing his scheming treachery, desperation and quick temper. His witty riddle duel with Bilbo was truly ‘precious’.

The band, out of sight in the orchestra pit, were wonderful in their performance of John Mann’s engaging score and rousing songs (written with Alex Thomas). All were impressively sung. Dance numbers were captivating, impeccably choreographed and performed. A particular highlight was the elf girls’ hypnotic dance in Rivendell. Credit to movement director Nyroy Dixon.

Oxford Mail: The Hobbit by Magdalen College School at the Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Andrew Walmsley

Plot wise, it is no mean feat condensing a long, action-packed tale into a tight, two-hour show. Let’s not forget, Jackson spread The Hobbit over a combined eight hours of gripping cinema. Alex Thomas’s script neatly edits the companions’ mission while maintaining key plot devices and keeping the spirit, integrity and message of Tolkien’s narrative.

A lot goes on in this pacy production but rather than being rushed and overwhelming it is spacious and elegantly staged – bursts of action interspersed with moments of introspection, soul searching and amusement.

The talent off stage was as strong as that in the limelight. Lighting and sound were strong, the multitasking scenery ingenious, and the projected visuals powerful. The depiction of the dragon Smaug reduced to a huge blinking eye being particularly impressive.

All those involved – cast and crew – should take great pride in not only bringing Tolkien’s sweeping epic to the stage in his home city, but for doing it with such panache and fun.

I hope they had as much fun presenting it, as we had watching.