I remember when Shrek the Musical hit the Theatre Royal Drury Lane back in 2011; I was so jealous of all the kids going in to see it. I loved the film (well, the first one, at any rate) and thought a musical version would be a perfect spin-off. It ran for two good years, so it must have been doing something right. This new touring production was an excellent opportunity for me to fill my Shrek-shaped knowledge gap.
Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire are not the first names that trip off the tongue when you think of Broadway musical writers; but Ms Tesori is responsible for the highly regarded Caroline, or Change, and Mr Lindsay-Abaire wrote the delicious Fuddy Meers amongst other works, so I reckon they should know how to put a musical together. They’ve taken the simple plot of the original film, which, if you don’t know it (gasp!) is basically: evil Lord evicts fairy-tale characters, so they end up having to live in an ogre’s swamp. Said ogre (Shrek) isn’t happy about this, so goes off to complain to the Lord, en route collecting a donkey as companion. Said Lord is looking for a Princess to marry, so that he can become King. But he’s far too weak and conceited to do his own dirty work, so when Shrek arrives at his castle, he sends him off to rescue the Princess (Fiona) from her tower. But one thing leads to another and Shrek and Fiona fall in love, even though they both think the other doesn’t fancy them. Does Fiona have to marry the evil Lord Farquaad, or can Shrek put everything right just in time? Well, it is a modern day fairy-tale, so what do you think?
There’s no expense spared on bringing this extravagant production to life; enormous sets, great costumes, a ravishing-sounding seven-piece band in the pit, some clever special effects, very groovy puppetry – the dragon is a true tour de force – and an awful lot of green make-up. The cast work together as an ensemble extremely well and there are some great individual performances; and the audience gave it a warm reception at the end.
But I couldn’t help conclude that it was, overall, a very peculiar show. It’s clearly targeting the children/pantomime audience, but it’s also more sophisticated than that; deconstructing fairy-tale characters a la Into the Woods, with a cross-dressing wolf and a Pinocchio with an identity crisis. It’s the kind of musical that has lots of big, showbizzy, jazz hands numbers; so much so that it seemed to me more like a modern-day parody of a, say, 1930s Busby Berkeley affair than actually having an identity of its own. When the Pied Piper has difficulty catching his rats, it’s a cue for Princess Fiona to marshal them into a rat tap-dancing act, all dressed up in their tuxedos and tails. I thought I was witnessing Fiona understudying Carol Channing and her 10 Stout-Hearted Men (50 points to you if you remember that). It’s as though Shrek had been handed over to Mel Brooks to create an ogre-based version of Springtime for Hitler, with all its inherent, ludicrous inappropriateness. For a modern show it just feels very anachronistic; if this is the way children get an early introduction to modern musical theatre, I feel they might being led up a very odd garden path.
It also feels like a rather unbalanced show, in that there’s a dream of a role in Lord Farquaad, who lights up the stage with every appearance; the performance by Samuel Holmes is so cleverly realised and beautifully undertaken, with the writers giving him all the best lines and the funniest songs. As a result, you spend the rest of the time looking forward to him coming on again, somewhat at the expense of everything else.
The jolly green giant (except he’s not jolly) Shrek the ogre is played by Steffan Harri; he adopts a big, gruff, Scottish accent in the style of Mike Myers’ original, and, given the fact that his make-up and prosthetics totally mask his real face, he gives a surprisingly expressive performance, revealing Shrek’s emotions and motivations much more clearly than you would expect. When he thinks that Fiona and the Donkey have been laughing at him behind his back, and that he has no chance with her romantically, his lovelorn disappointment is genuinely moving. Laura Main’s Princess Fiona combines both the youthful beauty of the classic Princess locked in a tower, with the world-weary frustration of someone who’s waited 8,423 days to meet her true love; assuming she was, say, 16-ish when she was locked up, that would make her around 40 years old today. Presenting her as not quite in her first flush of youth (no slight intended) is actually more realistic than simply being yet another Rapunzel. It’s a lively, energetic performance, with a big sense of fun; and the two characters work extremely well together, for example in “I Think I Got You Beat” (“Anything you can do I can do better” for ogres), when they compete to out-fart each other. The kids loved it.
My favourite character in the film (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) is the Donkey, and anyone trying to emulate Eddie Murphy’s characterisation on stage is in for a tough time. Fortunately, Marcus Ayton doesn’t attempt this, and his Donkey is less cartoony but more camp than the original. With his front legs up and hoofs pointing down, you could imagine this donkey sashaying around shouting you go, gurl! But Mr Ayton has a great range of vocal nuances and facial expressions that create an excitable but genuine character and it’s a very funny performance. But unquestionably my favourite was Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad, not only for the physical feat of spending two and a half hours on his knees, but for his terrifically funny characterisation – the quirky asides, the barely suppressed contempt for anything that doesn’t make him look good; the perfect epitome of little man syndrome. He’s a total delight throughout.
It’s a very slick, professional and ebullient show, but for some reason it never hit me in the heart. Too old and cynical for this kind of thing? I hope not. Shrek is on a major tour; after Northampton it travels to Sheffield, Cardiff, Stoke, Blackpool, Woking, Liverpool, Norwich, Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Llandudno, Nottingham, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Plymouth, Southampton and winding up in Leeds for Christmas and New Year.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks