Review – Shrek the Musical, Derngate, Northampton, 14th March 2018

ShrekI 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.

Shrek-005Jeanine 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.Shrek-065 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?

Shrek-168There’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.

Shrek-083But 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, Shrek-208all 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.

Shrek-057It 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.

Shrek-287The 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.Shrek-112 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.

Shrek-016My 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.

Shrek-170It’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

Review – Hamlet the Musical, Royal, Northampton, 19th May 2011

Hamlet the MusicalElsinore, 1600. The battlements of the castle. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. And sings!

You know a show’s a winner when you sit through it in joy, walk home afterwards in joy, go to bed in joy, get up in joy and laugh about it all through breakfast. I had a preconceived idea of what “Hamlet! The Musical” would be like, having seen an introduction to it at the season launch and having read a couple of reviews. But actually the show exceeds expectations on all levels. It’s not merely a Shakespearian spoof. The songs are delightfully catchy and tuneful; the lyrics are extremely witty and cleverly thought out; and the cast work their socks off with huge zest to fill the Royal auditorium with laughter and affection.

Shakespeare plays of course do lend themselves to being “musicalised” in different ways. You can take the basic play and put music to it, like Trevor Nunn’s Comedy of Errors in the 1970s; you can attach a musical to the side of it, like Kiss Me Kate; you can use it to inspire a completely new work, like West Side Story; or you can keep the characters and a few words from the original script and tell basically the same plot tongue firmly in cheek like Hamlet the Musical. And it works really well.

Among the songs, it has a big number, “To Be or Not To Be” that strongly reminds me of Sweden’s 1999 Eurovision winner “Take me to your heaven”. The two could nicely interchange! I liked the use of the Danish song sheet and pluckily attempted it in the original tongue. There’s another song which is all about what the bloody bloody hell do we bloody do now, which had me in hysterics. A song that relies heavily on inadequate swear words contrasts so entertainingly with the work of the English language’s greatest wordsmith. To pick just two songs to remember is to do an injustice to the rest of it though; every song works in its own way.

Jack ShallooUsually a moody misfit, Hamlet here is presented as part Everyman and part dingbat; his incongruous “ordinary bloke” appearance is so not what you would expect of the eponymous Prince that it really maximises his comic potential. He’s endearingly hopeless, really – needing a decent question, he can only get as far as “to be or…” I thought Jack Shalloo’s performance was a real knockout. It’s the combination of his apparent ordinariness, his slightly “fish out of water” characterisation, and his unexpected ability to sing and dance way beyond what you would expect from looking at him! One cheeky glance and he takes you into his confidence so that his plight is your plight. But then rather than build up a tragic Shakespearian crescendo, instead he’ll play the fool or play up to the girls just like anyone of us would. I loved the portrayal of his England tour – suddenly becoming a popstar, chatting up the talent in the audience and getting the lady cellist to ring him. He’s like a chip off the old block as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father has that certain Vegas quality too!

Jess RobinsonOphelia is sweetness and light but becomes the girlfriend from hell that Hamlet needs to ditch in order to avenge his father’s murder. The staging of her descent into madness is one of sheer hilarity. Jess Robinson is great in this role but also in the several other roles she takes, perhaps best as the irrepressibly cheery Rosencrantz, a wholesomely squeaky college dude who would irritate the pants off you on Wittenberg Campus. Gabriel VickThe other half of this ingeniously presented duo is Gabriel Vick’s Guildenstern, equally nauseating for all the right reasons. He is terrific as Laertes, the kind of guy who comes back from foreign lands having acquired the accent – and much more. I don’t recall Laertes going to Spain, but this one obviously did. He may be all protective of his sister and trying to macho up against Hamlet but deep down you get the feeling he just likes dressing up. I think this is the third time we’ve seen Gabriel Vick – we also caught him in Avenue Q a while back and he was marvellous as the son in the Menier’s Little Night Music (later, Henrik, much later…)

Virge Gilchrist Virge Gilchrist’s Gertrude is a fantastic incarnation of weary lustiness, regretting the fact that her son has “issues”, but being won over by hunky Claudius’ gold codpiece, and her breaking the news of Polonius’ death to Laertes is a stroke of genius! Mark InscoeMark Inscoe’s Claudius is villainy personified and gets nicely uncomfortable watching the play within the play, brilliantly presented as snatches from opera. As Gertrude says, he clearly prefers Ayckbourn. He has a marvellously mealy-mouthed song about his capacity for doing good from which he wrings every nuance. David BurtDavid Burt revels in numerous other roles, including Polonius, nicely hidden behind the arras (not), a gravedigger with a cheeky tombstone bearing an ALW epitaph, and a Fortinbras who suffers from Premature Interjection. It all ends with everyone dead of course, killed with authentic Danish weaponry, and you just love the way they milk the death spasms.

It’s pure escapist entertainment from start to finish. Take an extra tenner with you as you’ll definitely want to buy the CD. It’s on next week in Richmond, and hopefully somewhere else after that. ‘Tis no tragedy, it’s a wonderful two hours that will suit lovers and detractors of Shakespeare alike!