Book and Lyrics: David Lindsay-Abaire
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Nigel Harman
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
The tone for the latest touring production of Shrek the Musical was set by the Front of House announcement as the house lights dimmed. Should we fail to switch off our mobile phones, we were warned, Shrek would come down from the stage and fart on our heads. The children in the audience whooped; the adults hastily checked their devices, and everyone settled into the swamp for the evening.
As the original film first emerged from the DreamWorks factory in 2001, many of the parents in the audience may have been introducing their own children to a story they first loved at the same age. Neither the charm of the story – an inverted fairy tale in which both Prince and Princess Charming are unattractive – nor the irreverence of the humour, have aged too badly in the passing years.
In order to regain ownership of his swampland home, Shrek is forced to undertake a quest by the diminutive Lord Farquaad, who needs to marry a princess to secure elevation to royal status. The selected bride-to-be is imprisoned in a high tower, guarded by a fiery dragon, and obsessed with romantic stories about princesses rescued from dragons etc. When rescued by the charmless ogre, and his unwanted sidekick, the talking Donkey, she looks forward to a fairytale ending. But this is put at risk by the curse placed upon her as a child which transforms her into an ogre during the hours of darkness. Inevitably, Shrek and Princess Fiona fall in love despite themselves, Lord Farquaad gets his comeuppance, the downtrodden folk of fairyland have their rights restored, and all ends happily as it should.
The elements which made the original film so successful, and launched the ever-expanding franchise, are all present and correct. The personalities of the central characters and even their accents are recognisably faithful to those of the celluloid original. The wisecracks are still sharp, the humour manages to balance coarseness with sophistication to suit all tastes and fine touches in the delineation of minor characters, and at the margins of scenes, demonstrate the thoroughness of the approach. This is a highly polished, consummately professional production, with superb technical devices, and a cast which gives the show 100% from first to last.
It is also, of course, a musical, whereas the film original was not. So it must also be judged on the strength of the music which now sustains the story. In terms of delivery, the singing is top notch, and the seven-piece orchestra does the music proud. Many of the compositions, by Jeanine Tesori, are of a high standard and would merit a place in many a production with more serious pretensions. This is most certainly true of the ensemble What’s Up, Duloc?, and the soulful Forever. The fact that the latter is a duet between a Dragon and a loudmouthed Donkey fails to undermine its strengths as a torch song. Similarly, Shrek’s lovelorn rendition of When Words Fail takes a familiar trope but gives it a fresh approach, and one which does not rely on the singer being a bulky green swamp dweller.
Arch humour or irony can sometimes help to lift a tired song or add a touch of zest to one which would otherwise be quite mundane. Several songs gain momentum in this way including Morning Person and The Ballad of Farquaad, where some slightly risque stage business also helps give extra pep to the delivery. But several of the other routines are, well…routine. Fiona’s lament, I know It’s Today, is almost rescued from mundanity by the fact that her chorus line are half a dozen puppets, but not quite. The ensemble pieces Freak Flag, and show-opener Big Bright Beautiful World is delivered with great energy but both are relentlessly ordinary songs. The creative barrel bottom was reached, however, with a troupe of tap-dancing rats dressed in tailcoats.
That said, the show has so many good qualities that many will feel such weak areas should be excused or overlooked. Lord Farquaad’s torture of the Gingerbread Man is brilliantly funny, the puppetry bringing the Dragon to life is first-rate, the sets costumes and special effects are of a very high quality, and production values generally are impeccable. All the performances are thoroughly convincing and if Marcus Ayton as Donkey and Samuel Holmes as Lord Farquaad steal their respective scenes, they are aided and abetted by the quality of the original screenplay, distinctive casting, and superb comic use of prosthetic limbs.
As befits a production with so much pedigree behind it, Shrek the Musical sets itself a very high standard, and lives up to it in so many respects, that its few weak areas do not detract from a highly enjoyable evening. Its appeal crosses generations and brings them together, and that is not the least of its many good points.
Runs until 8 April 2018 | Image: Contributed