Wednesday 19th December 2018 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
Shrek and the gang look pretty darn good on a stage folks. Thanks to stage wizardry, the beloved Dreamworks ogre treads the boards with the help of a little green paint and prosthetic assistance. The show has been delighting little ones up and down the country for a lengthy tour and now Tour Director Nigel Harman leads a bright and shiny cast in the telling of a witty and vibrant story fun for all ages at the last stop: The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
Based on the Dreamworks film and Book by William Steig, this musical with Book by David Lindsay-Abaire arrives in a whirl of cartoon colour, big sounds and scale. Big, bold set and costume designs from Tim Hatley (with fabulous wig/hair design by David Brian-Brown) take us to fantasy fairytale land instantaneously as the show begins…
The story of the first movie is told here, with mean Lord Farquaad exiling fairytale ‘freaks’ to a nearby swamp…which happens to be ogre Shrek’s escape from the unforgiving cruel world where everyone who meets him gasps, gags or shrieks at his hideousness. With all those loud colourful newbies on his doorstep, Shrek confronts the little man in charge of the Kingdom. Farquaad in turn seeks a princess to enable him to become King of the land. Having heard of a Princess in a tower, guarded by a dragon (naturally), he barters with Shrek: the return of your swamp for the safe collection and delivery of this Princess. Off on this mission, Shrek is unexpectedly joined by sidekick Donkey and while the ‘rescue’ of the Princess is simple enough, it’s what follows that threatens to throw a spanner in the works…
Steffan Harri is a great lead. He channels Shrek’s cantankerous side as well as he portrays his gentle giant side and with a fantastic voice at his disposal too, Harri gets to draw laughs and awwws from his audience in turns. And who is Shrek without Donkey? Marcus Ayton takes to the role with a strut and a sass which mark a departure from the animated original, and it’s a shift that very much works as it quickly becomes clear that a sassy chatty ass is most definitely an upgrade.
As accidental love interest Princess Fiona, Laura Main is brilliantly awkward and very funny indeed. She captures the accident-prone, socially under-developed beauty of the character very nicely with some great physicality and together with Harri, Main offers up some lovely duets and vocals – not to mention a wonderful tap number!
Lord Farquaad is an easy favourite for most I think. Samuel Holmes performs the role with such deadpan ego (complete with smug grin and arched villain brow) that it’s impossible not to fall under his comic spell. Costume trickery is vital to this character’s bottomless well of gags as his stature is mocked at every turn and Holmes’ physicality brings script, costume and physical gags together to make one heck of an impression. His little yellow legs are the gift that keeps on giving, and as an audience, we are collectively ever thankful.
Tim Hatley’s puppet designs are an impressive addition to the stage magic. Gingy the Gingerbread Man is brilliantly designed and similar mechanisms are no doubt used for Pinocchio’s nose growth. Then there’s the Dragon. She’s big and she’s beautiful in her own special way, with glowing eyes and fluttering lashes which rid the stage of all hints of true threat. She’s also a belting Dragon with killer pipes and it’s Christina Modestou who provides the soaring vocals of our scaly spectacle. Put it this way, this is one impressive fire breathing dragon that no one wants to see on the end of a sword!
As a musical, the show skips along at a nice pace and the musical numbers arrive every few scenes like clockwork. Numbers like the comic opener Big Bright Beautiful World, the rib tickling I Think I Got You Beat and the torch song Freak Flag are all winners here. A uniquely entertaining element of the show is the frequent planting of references to other musicals, something done with tongue firmly in cheek and very much for the approval of the older audience members. Expect Gypsy, Chicago and Les Mis to make fleeting appearances for your delight and pleasure.
Lyrics by Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori have the cast performing in a variety of styles while also connecting certain sounds to specific characters for comic impact; Farquaad’s tunes for example are always something of a concoction of twangy Tudor notes, the plinky plonk of early nursery rhymes and sped-up panto doom tones – all of which place Farquaad firmly in position as sitting Master of Comedy in the production.
The show leans trustingly on its enthused ensemble who take Choreography from Josh Prince and make it a wonderfully vibrant vision, with the designs clearly showing an awareness of the additional flair held in the combinations of costumes and movement.
And within the ensemble, there’s much talent on display. The three pigs (Adam Baker, Reece Kerridge and Adam Taylor) are fantastic and hilarious. Pinocchio, played by Jospeh Dockree is also a hoot and has the most perfectly fitting voice. The Sugar Plum Fairy who doubles as voice and puppeteer of Gingy, Jemma Revell, is talented in both comic timing vocals. But the one to really vocally steal the show is Mama Bear Jennifer Tierney who could quite possibly lift a marble roof from its fixings.
Inevitably, the fun and fantasy are the most winning elements of the show, with the more violin-inspired moments not quite managing to impress as much (though the celebration of the ‘freaks’ and being different is nicely done in that it isn’t at all overdone) but this is undoubtedly an excellent production aimed at young and old(er) but sure to win over youngsters.
Highlights in the show are many, spanning brilliant comic characters, puppetry and whizzy stagecraft, great musical numbers and some nicely landed one liners and physical gags. And have I mentioned the epic Dragon puppet who frankly steals the show at every given opportunity? I have? Good. There’s a loud and proud message about celebrating otherness. There’s spectacle and wit and slapstick. There’s music and sass and colour and gas – now, what’s not to love about that?
Shrek The Musical plays at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until 6th January 2019 and you can find tickets here.