An enchanting “Shrektacular” at Shrek The Musical
Shrek The Musical is based on the 2001 DreamWorks film, a firm family favourite. Capturing the magic of animation, the show begins with sets that open up like the pages of a children’s storybook. Directed by Rob Ashford and Jason Moore at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the production brings the unforgettable film characters to life and explores their underlying feelings and motives.
A trip to theatreland is always magical but never more so than when the unlikely hero is a green ogre who finds himself caught up in a rescue mission more suited to a handsome knight in shining armour.
Settled into a brilliant front row seat, I sat back in ready anticipation as a green glow was cast onstage and Shrek ambled out from the wings, keen to tell us his story and describe the persecution he has faced.
We soon discover the humble beginnings of the gigantic green ogre, Shrek (Dean Chisnall), and the backstory of the feisty Princess Fiona (Kimberley Walsh). Both were left by their parents to face a life of solitude. Fiona was banished at the age of seven to await a dramatic rescue from a dragon-guarded tower by her one true love. And Shrek was sent off at the same tender young age to face the world alone, as ogres are apparently expected to do.
“An ogre always hides, an ogre’s fate is known, an ogre always stays in the dark and all alone”, sing the ogre parents of a seven-year-old Shrek.
Resigned to people reacting negatively to him just because he is an ogre, Shrek forlornly sings that it is a “big bright beautiful world” for everyone but him. So, our big, green and grumpy hero lives alone in a peaceful, isolated swamp – until the day his land is invaded by a motley crew of fairytale creatures.
The dastardly three-foot-nothing Lord Farquaad has banished the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pinocchio (“I am a REAL boy, I am, I am”), the Gingerbread Man, the Three Bears, the Big Bad (cross-dressing!) Wolf and countless other fairy-tale characters from the Kingdom of Duloc, forcing them to relocate. Their only hope is that Shrek will face up to the pint-sized villain, reclaim his swamp and save the magical squatters from a life in conditions to which they are unwilling to become accustomed.
Decked out in costumes in a kaleidoscope of colours, the ensemble cast delivers a winning performance, bringing the much-loved personalities to life.
Journeying to the palace – meeting the unforgettable Donkey (portrayed by Richard Blackwood) along the way – Shrek finds himself commandeered into a quest to rescue Princess Fiona so that Lord Farquaad may marry into royalty and become King of Duloc.
In Shrek The Musical, Donkey is endearingly costumed in a fuzzy grey bodysuit with black hooves as hands and jazz dance style high tops. My personal favourite part of the Donkey look has to be the ears and tail. As the only remaining original cast member among the leads, Richard Blackwood’s performance as Shrek’s wise-cracking sidekick is assured (definitely on a par with the comic attack of Eddie Murphy who voices the character in the film). Blackwood has all the panache, outrageous quips and shimmying dance moves we expect from the tartly funny donkey. Watch out for his entrance – it is quite unconventional!
Scenes from the film are faithfully replicated throughout Shrek The Musical, complete with multi-layered humour to appeal to adults and children alike.
The show “heightens” the role of the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad. This provides ample opportunity to make the undersized character the baddy we love to hate. Staring up at the soaring towers of Lord Farquaad’s castle, which dominates the skyline, Shrek wonders: “Do you think he might be compensating for something?”
The diminutive Lord Farquaad, played by Neil McDermott of EastEnders fame, is certainly a show-stealer, offering energetic songs complete with side-splitting choreography and excellent comic timing. Spending the whole show performing on his knees, McDermott is a long way away from Albert Square as he scuttles about the stage, sporting hysterically funny prosthetic legs and a billowing cape. The infectious enthusiasm buzzing around the auditorium had a lot to do with his hilarious facial expressions and effortlessly delivered gags.
Staging for Shrek The Musical is clever and charming. Although it perhaps does not make the most of the space that the Theatre Royal has to offer, there is enough variation to keep spectators guessing. The fearsome, love-sick scaly dragon that guards the tower where Princess Fiona awaits her rescuer is initially manually operated in smoothly-choreographed War Horse style before it ends up soaring over the heads of the thrilled audience.
Songs throughout the show are very well performed. They drive the narrative and exploit every opportunity for some finely-tuned humour. Fiona has a charming ballad (‘Morning Person’) which taps into the wonders of spring, with plenty of comedic stagecraft, while the lovely ‘I Know It’s Today’ is performed with two younger versions of the character to illustrate the long wait for that one true kiss. Our fair maiden later engages in some humorous sparring with Shrek in ‘I Think I Got You Beat’. This number compares their back-stories and sees them fighting with belches and farts. Ultimately, they discover that they have more in common than expected!
Still, the song that leaves everyone wanting more right at the end of the show is ‘I’m A Believer’, which features on the soundtrack for the film. This tune has everyone leaving the theatre on an excited high.
The underlying moral offers hope for all – no matter how much of a freak you are made to feel. Definitely an appealing message in an increasingly image-conscious world.*
Final verdict: Shrek The Musical gives the world of fairytales a quirky twist in an all-singing, all-dancing production guaranteed to enchant the whole family.
Visit the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane website to discover more West End magic.
Update 20 August 2015: Read my review of Shrek The Musical at Milton Keynes Theatre.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.