“An Ogre always hides, an Ogre’s fate is known, an Ogre always stays in the dark and all alone”
I hadn’t originally intended to go to Shrek The Musical, certainly not this early in the run, never having seen the films and having a somewhat mixed reaction to the lead casting. The Nigels, Lindsay and Harman, intrigued me but Amanda Holden (I’ve never seen Britain’s Got Talent either) and Richard Blackwood did not appeal. But when an offer appeared on the show’s Facebook page, for £40 tickets at the front of the Upper Circle at a ridiculously cheap price of £15, I snapped up a pair as a birthday treat.
A big-budget production of the show had a relatively short run of just over a year on Broadway but a much-revised version went out on tour across North America last year and it is a copy of this scaled-down production that is now previewing in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, directed by Rob Ashford and Jason Moore. It has a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire (also writer of the harrowing Rabbit Hole – talk about diversity!) and music by Jeanine Tesori, and according to my lovely companion for the evening, it cleaves very closely indeed to the first film in the franchise, right down to the same jokes being repeated. This is a review of an early preview, indeed there’s about a month of preview performances, so do bear that in mind as I have.
Following the grumpy ogre Shrek whose peaceful, isolated swamp is invaded by a large group of fairytale creatures who, as it turns out, have been banished from the Kingdom of Duloc by the dastardly Lord Farquaad. Shrek then journeys to the palace to reclaim his swamp but ends up being commandeered into a quest to rescue the Princess Fiona from a tower guarded by a dragon, accompanied by a talking donkey called, well, Donkey. As ever on quests, our protagonists find there’s more to each other than meets the eye which leads them in directions they do not anticipate. It’s a pleasingly direct story, and the audience around me were loving the many moments of recognition as scenes from the film are faithfully replicated. But the show is also full of multi-layered humour that means it will and does appeal to adults and children alike. Best for me were the countless cheeky digs and affectionate call-outs to other musicals: The Lion King, Les Mis, West Side Story and Wicked were my personal favourites, see how many you can spot!
I still maintain that Nigel Lindsay is too good an actor to be covered so in prosthetics and make-up but even with these encumbrances, he made for a great leading man. Yes, there are better singers out there but very few of them would be able to capture the lumbering affability that grows into real charm as his quest draws out unexpected feelings, balancing the broad humour with genuine emotion. As Princess Fiona, Amanda Holden got to show off acting, dancing and singing skills which were all pleasantly surprisingly good, the song with her younger selves ‘I Know It’s Today’ was just lovely and I thought she made a great sparring partner for Lindsay in the second half as they discover they’ve more in common than at first sight.
But it is Nigel Harman as the diminutive Lord Farquaad who is the show-stealer, performing entirely on his knees. He’s a great singer (probably the best of the leads) with excellent comic timing here, but also blessed the more energetic songs complete with hilarious choreography and sight gags that make his scenes an absolute pleasure. It does also mean that he is missed when not onstage. The ensemble is also exceptionally good though, full of recognisable faces from several much-loved shows (if ever there was a sign I see too much theatre it is here in how many of these people I was excited to see!) and they provide a great energy throughout the show, whether vocally in a number of songs or working through Josh Prince’s neat choreography. The dancing rats were fun, the guards accompanying Farquaad are excellent, but they are probably best when playing the other fairytale characters who force Shrek on his odyssey: Jonathan Stewart’s Pinocchio and Alice Fearn’s Gingy deserving special mention here, as does Landi Oshinowo’s powerful vocals behind the dragon.
There’s only a couple of elements that could do with tidying up, like Lord Farquaad’s cape needs to hang closer to his legs when he is side on to the audience, especially when walking as it doesn’t look good, but otherwise the show looked in excellent shape, especially considering how early it is. The only issue I had was with Richard Blackwood as Donkey. Part of it was due to the structure of the show, the character of Donkey actually has little to do of genuine interest: Shrek and Donkey’s road trip action is rather dull, epitomised by a nice piece of stagecraft with an impressive rickety bridge emerging only to be barely used in a rather short scene; and once Fiona joins them, he is a constant third wheel in their burgeoning relationship, often to be found just lurking in the background. But he doesn’t help himself with a performance that could only be described as lacklustre at best: acting-wise, he was very flat, even something as simple as walking off the stage was poorly done – Lindsay broke hearts with his trudging off after harsh words with Fiona but when Donkey subsequently leaves after bitter words with the upset ogre, Blackwood brought no emotion and just walked off. He has a way to go to get up to the quality of his stage companions before opening night.
All in all though, I had a good time at Shrek. There’s an infectious enthusiasm about the piece that was just hard to resist and there were countless moments of raucous laughter, most coming from Harman’s portrayal of Farquaad which will surely be a safe bet for nomination in the next award season. The set looks fine without being particularly elaborate or in tune with the available space at the Lane but there’s some great moments involving the dragon which the kids (both big and small) will love. As with most new musicals, it was hard to remember any of the songs the moment we’d left the theatre and I think the show could benefit from one or two stand-out hits, solid-gold musical numbers that linger in the mind long after the curtain has gone down. But I suspect this will weather whatever critical responses come its way, it is pure popcorn entertainment after all, and settle down into a strong family show.