fri 25/06/2021

Shrek the Musical, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane | reviews, news & interviews

Shrek the Musical, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

Shrek the Musical, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

The Nigels have it as latest film-turned-stage-musical hits London

Broadway musicals can have a bumpy transatlantic crossing. For every New York entry that repeats its acclaim on the West End, others quickly fade, while still others never make it to the capital at all: consider The Light in the Piazza, which won six Tonys in 2005 but hasn't yet been seen in the UK south of Leicester. What, then, of Shrek, DreamWorks's entry into the Broadway musical sweepstakes that called it quits in New York after little more than a year? It's way too early to tell whether London will prove the show's salvation, but at least it boasts two Nigels who between them are not to be missed.

In fact, Nigel Lindsay and Nigel Harman have shared a West End musical stage before: they both took over in the Michael Grandage-directed Guys and Dolls, since which time Lindsay, in particular, has returned to his time-honoured passion, acting in plays. And yet, here they are entering into the spirit of an undemanding kids' show that is this animated film franchise made flesh.

You want meat on the bones of your fairytale musical theatre rewrite? Search out Stephen Sondheim's thematically knotted, musically exultant Into the Woods. Sure, Shrek boasts music by Jeanine Tesori, whose contribution to Caroline, or Change remains arguably the most exciting original score that the New York (and London, where it played the National) theatres have seen in years. But the true animus of this piece lies in a sustained fart/burp duel between Lindsay's Shrek and Amanda Holden's Princess Fiona that aims low and, um, succeeds. Annie Oakley and Frank Butler never squared off quite like this.

In fact, Lindsay has never had an assignment quite like embodying in three dimensions celluloid's beloved Scottish ogre, a task more akin to filling the fat suits that go with Hairspray or The Woman in White than inhabiting the worlds of Stoppard and Pinter, to name just two playwrights where Lindsay has shown himself to be at home. (Intriguingly, he appeared in London and New York in a revival of The Real Thing, the Tom Stoppard play whose musical leitmotif is the same Monkees' favourite, "I'm a Believer", that Shrek uses to bring the audience to its feet at the curtain call.)

Moody but not overly diffident, shy but sweet with it, Shrek is a green-hued outcast with funny ears and an ungainly gait who goes on much the same journey as the similarly coloured malcontent, Elphaba, in the smash hit Wicked. Both shows redeem their initially forlorn central characters by reminding us time and again that it's what lies beneath the skin that makes us special - or, as the song lyric rather relentlessly puts it, "let your freak flag fly". The two musicals, too, build to variants on the inevitable "you're beautiful" exchange that tends to hit younger audiences, particularly, where they live - assuming they can see the stage. One poor tyke in front of me at last weekend's press preview spent most of the performance trying numerous positions so he could access what was happening over the heads in front of him. Doesn't Drury Lane provide cushions?

Part of the fascination of such consciously constructed entertainment behemoths lies in watching the creative team work overtime to cater to all corners of the market. Glee fans will have a field day tabulating the musical theatre in-jokes that are de rigueur these days with this material, the Dreamgirls allusion both the funniest and the least likely to mean much in London, a city that knows that 1981 Broadway trailblazer only from the film. Conversely, I don't remember David Beckham and Spearmint Rhino getting a look-in when I saw Shrek on Broadway, though I suppose it is magnanimous of DreamWorks to acknowledge their competitor Disney's The Lion King at all, however briefly.

harman1In casting terms, the self-evident name draw is leading lady Amanda Holden, an efficient yet unexceptional stage presence who doesn't generate anywhere near the excitement of her Broadway forbear, two-time Tony-winner Sutton Foster, in whose effortless shoes the sweet-faced if effortful Holden previously followed when she premiered Thoroughly Modern Millie here in the West End. Still, at least Holden seems in the show, unlike comedian Richard Blackwood, as the Donkey (Eddie Murphy's screen role), who frequently gives the impression that he would rather be anywhere else. (I've rarely seen so many double takes get so few laughs.) Paging the invaluable Daniel Breaker, who originated the part in New York.

That leaves our wonderfully complementary Nigels: Lindsay finding the thwarted poet beneath an avalanche of platitudes ("beautiful ain't always pretty") that would do less robust a performer in, and Nigel Harman (pictured right, giving us his best Eva Peron), as the queeny would-be king, the pint-sized Lord Farquaad, who performs much of the show on his knees even as he raises the roof. I'm not sure who among co-directors Rob Ashford and Jason Moore and choreographer Josh Prince worked out the movements of the spindly yellow legs that dangle in front of Harman, a panto villain with abandonment issues who is also a firm-voiced comedian with whiplash hair.

What I do know is that when Harman waddles centre stage through the primary-colour thicket that is Tim Hatley's set, all the cautious, pro forma aspects of Shrek vanish, replaced, however momentarily, by derangement of an especially delicious sort. All this from one performer, and good grammar, too? (Farquaad knows the difference between "who" and "whom".) It's in the spirit of a show that locates beauty in ugliness that so physically challenged a presence should - as long as Harman is in view - leave you feeling 10ft tall.


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Nice review; thoughtful and well-informed as always. On the night I was there, (last Friday, June 10) ALL the kids had access to cushions and the little girl in front of me made a point of asking if I could still see: I could. Indeed, I was delighted with the interrupted view of the stage I enjoyed in Row 'O'.

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