Book and Lyrics: David Lindsay-Abaire
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Tour Director: Nigel Harman
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
They may be tales as old as time, but in 2001 Shrek gave traditional fairy stories a post-modern makeover, turning inwards the conventions of happily ever after, and giving their characters a few sly twists. The film won a Best Animation Oscar, and DreamWorks had almost single-handedly reinvented family cinema for the early twenty-first century, reinvigorating the old-school fare that Disney had come to monopolise.
That great leap forward in family entertainment seems solidly confined to a land far, far away as the story of an ogre in a world of outcast fairy tale characters is given the full stage musical treatment. What unfolds on the Playhouse stage this Christmas seems uncannily similar in style and content to the traditional panto playing on the other side of town, but with neither the warmth and charm of that form, nor the ribald, chaotic energy which characterised much of Shrek‘s original appeal.
Gruff loner Shrek (Steffan Harri) is tasked with rescuing imprisoned princess Fiona (Laura Main) on behalf of evil king-in-waiting Lord Farquaad (Samuel Holmes), aided and abetted by misfit donkey, Donkey (Marcus Ayton). Meanwhile, familiar characters from well-loved stories find themselves thrown into the hinterland of Shrek’s swamp, as Farquaad seeks to purge his kingdom of oddities and freaks.
While the original film was jam-packed with child-friendly jokes and darkly satirical adult humour, David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics are largely lacking anything in the way of warmth or wit. The songs take themselves far too seriously for a story aimed firmly at an audience of children, and it’s not difficult to sense the young audience losing interest during the word-heavy Who I’d Be or When Words Fail. There’s barely a catchy tune or a memorable lyric to be had, and certainly no viable showstopper until the finale of the Monkees/Neil Diamond classic I’m a Believer.
Although the four leads take the bulk of the vocal heavy lifting, the most successful musical sequences are the ensemble pieces: What’s Up, Duloc?, an ode to the rise of fairy tale fascism; Freak Flag, a cheeky Les Mis send-up that galvanises the outcast characters in a celebration of uniqueness and difference; and standout sequence Forever, featuring a masterfully manipulated dragon.
Of the leads, only Holmes’s villainous (and diminutive) Farquaad has the depth of wit and character to be consistently entertaining, with Harri’s reluctant hero and Main’s bi-polar princess lacking the dynamism needed to be a true musical power couple. Ayton’s voice and vocal styling keeps the asinine Donkey on the right side of irritating, but there’s little chemistry between him and Shrek, with a script that barely captures the iconic wisecracking the Eddie Murphy brought to the original animated character.
There’s no lacking in energy, enthusiasm and commitment from the whole cast, and the show makes up visually much of what it lacks in words and music, with puppetry, colour and spectacle in ready supply throughout. A slow second half is eventually resolved with a speedy denouement, in a long production that tests the endurance of its young target audience, whilst wearying their parents with an absence of sophistication, depth and charm.
Runs until 7 January 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks