Playhouse, Edinburgh – until 7 Jan 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Big, bright and brash, there are plenty of laughs in the new touring production of Shrek the Musical, which is debuting at the Playhouse until the first week of the new year. The resulting show gains enough traction to convince as a continuing hit, even if it does not forge an identity of its own.
The original source for the show is, of course, the 2001 Dreamworks movie (which took its inspiration from William Steig’s book). The story of an ogre, who is big, ugly, fierce, green and Scottish (but ultimately just misunderstood), sent to rescue an imprisoned princess with the aid of his ‘noble steed’, a fast-talking donkey, was a surprisingly huge success.
That first cinematic outing is smart, funny and involving. It has great fun at the expense of the tropes of fairy tales and Disney movies, and is stuffed full of jokes and witty pop culture references. Unfortunately, it has since spawned a franchise, with seemingly never-ending sequels and spin-offs that are the very definition of diminishing returns.
David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori’s 2008 musical avoids much of this by going back to the first film, with the storyline replicating it closely and most of the best lines being word-for-word lifts from the screenplay.
This means that fans of the movie will be well satisfied, but does have the effect of making the whole project seeming less than necessary, and even gives it the occasional whiff of cynicism that is entirely at odds with the story.
The source made clever use of existing pop songs to pep up the narrative; here, the musical numbers break it up, and are not always designed to hold the attention of those younger audience members who are surely a huge part of the target audience. The surprisingly subtle ruminations on prejudice from the movie become more overblown.
There is also the unavoidable fact that the songs themselves are largely unremarkable. The throwaway references of the movie are replaced here by nods to various other musicals, which are a little on the self-congratulatory side.
The fact that I’m A Believer was drafted in to the stage show as a finale at an early stage in the musical’s existence seems to signal a desire to include at least one memorable number.
Otherwise, the one song that has gained any kind of fame has to be Who I’d Be, the climax of the first half. This is performed here with skill and emotion by three of the principals – Steffan Harri’s likeable and comic Shrek, Laura Main’s bright and breezy Princess Fiona and Marcus Ayton’s expansive Donkey.
The presentation of these characters on stage does encapsulate the problems of providing something that is more than a tribute to the movie. It is much easier to portray a huge green ogre and a talking donkey in animation than it is on stage, and they never seem to become much more than people dressed in funny costumes.
There is more theatrical magic about the puppet dragon (given huge voice by Lucinda Shaw). Similarly, the portrayal of the villainous, diminutive Lord Farquaad works so beautifully because it is so self-consciously and unashamedly theatrical. Samuel Holmes uses the time-honoured pantomime device of shuffling around on his knees with false legs strapped to him; he milks this for all he is worth, and often threatens to steal the show with his enviable command of comedy timing.
It should be pointed out that the urban myth about the supposedly rude pronunciation of Farquaad’s name does very much come true on a couple of occasions here. This is one of the things that tips the balance towards more adult jokes, such as one or two lame topical remarks; there are, of course, plenty of burps and farts to keep everyone amused.
The sparkle that would set this production apart is largely missing. Later in the tour, particularly on a grey spring evening, its relentless energy and impressive staging will probably seem much more attractive. Competing against a whole host of other shows at Christmas it seems less necessary.
Most striking are the efforts of a 14-strong ensemble, who throw themselves into a variety of characters and routines, backed by an indefatigable (if somewhat slimmed-down) orchestra. Nigel Harman’s direction maintains the almost breathless feel, with a pleasing supply of sight gags, aided by Tim Hatley’s primary-coloured design.
Viewed as an adjunct to the whole franchise, this is an enjoyable romp that will please any fans of the big green man. Agnostics might find it less involving, but this is very much the case with so many film-derived stage musicals.