Shrek the Musical

Book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire; music by Jeanine Tesori
Dreamworks Theatricals
Leeds Grand Theatre
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Shrek the Musical has been good to actor-turned-director Nigel Harman. For his hilarious performance as the miniscule tyrant Lord Farquaad in the first UK production, he earned rave reviews and an Olivier Award. His considerable knowledge of the show went into his first restaging back in 2014 and is in clear evidence in this new production.

Work began on Shrek the Musical swiftly after the film was first released in 2001. However, it didn’t reach Broadway until December 2008, where it failed to recoup its $25 million investment despite some warm reviews. It has, however, enjoyed great success in the UK and numerous touring productions all over the world, testifying to the enduring the popularity of the original film.

Adapted by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, the book sticks very closely to the film, with much of the dialogue being lifted directly from the screenplay. Shrek (Steffan Harri), a fearsome green ogre, enjoys his isolation in a filthy swamp. However, his peace is disturbed when the villainous Lord Farquaad (Samuel Holmes) banishes all the fairy-tale creatures to Shrek’s neighbourhood.

With the assistance of a sassy talking donkey (Marcus Ayton), Shrek travels to the city of Duloc. Upon arrival, Farquaad promises to remove the fairy-tale creatures, but only if Shrek agrees to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Laura Main), who languishes in a faraway castle guarded by a terrifying dragon.

Although I wouldn’t place the film version of Shrek in the same class as The Princess Bride (1987), it is still a witty, playful parody of fairy-tale conventions, with some inspired set pieces (the interrogation of the Gingerbread Man is genius!). Lindsay-Abaire’s script preserves these elements but also makes some welcome insertions, such as revealing the true origins of Lord Farquaad. The dialogue is funny, the characters are amusing, and the plot is satisfying yet mildly transgressive.

I only wish I could be so positive about the score. I enjoyed the songs while they were being performed, but it’s a bad sign when you can’t hum any of the tunes less than an hour after the show. In fact, all the original songs were effectively steamrolled by the show’s final number, a rousing cover of the Monkees’ hit “I’m a Believer”. Composer Jeanine Tesori has rightly won plaudits for her work on Caroline or Change and Fun Home—two of the best reviewed shows in the West End this year—but Shrek the Musical is not her finest work.

Whilst not a great musical, I still thoroughly enjoyed the production, and there are numerous reasons for this. For one thing, all the performers act, sing and dance with great commitment, and they sell the show as much as possible.

Shrek is a slightly dud role in that he doesn’t get many of the best one-liners, but Steffan Harri does a good job of charting his transformation from cranky loner to loved-up hero. Laura Main excels as Princess Fiona, particularly during the opening number of the second act where she tap-dances with rats in tuxedos. Marcus Ayton is terrific as Donkey, amply living up to Eddie Murphy’s indelible performance. Best of all, though, is Samuel Holmes, who is utterly brilliant as the pint-sized monster Lord Farquaad.

Tim Hatley’s eye-catching sets and costumes capture the spirit of the film, and they are greatly enriched by Duncan McLean’s inventive projections. The puppetry adds another dimension to the piece, and I was genuinely amazed by the 25-foot puppet dragon that appears towards the end of the first half.

I wish the songs had been catchier, but Shrek the Musical remains a well-crafted piece of family escapism that will continue to delight audiences for years to come.

James Ballands