Wednesday 30 January 2013

Shrek the Musical

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
26th January, 2013

Screen to stage musicals sometimes make theatregoers hesitant to go to see them, perhaps thinking that they are simply a producer’s way to make easy money. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Shrek the Musical at Drury Lane as it proved to be a fun, funny and extremely clever piece of theatre.

Firstly, before I saw the show I heard that the musical references other musicals akin to how the film references other films, leaving me looking out for them during the show. A chorus line of tap-dancing rats alludes to A Chorus Line, waving a flag with a face similar to the Les Mis Cosette logo undoubtedly is a reference to Les Miserables, there are Shakespeare references, a parody of the end of Defying Gravity from Wicked and a pastiche from The Lion King. These were just some of the musical references which make Shrek post-modern. These references are fitting for Shrek as it’s a story littered with allusions to well-known fairy tales so by acknowledging the world of theatre outside the walls of the Theatre Royal mirrors the way Shrek mentions, and turns on their head, moments of popular children’s stories.

Other things which make the show post-modern could be the references to Will and Kate’s castle and Donkey’s take on Usain Bolt’s the lightning bolt. However, there is also a self-consciousness about this piece of theatre which makes it particularly interesting. For instance, the story is framed with Shrek telling the audience his story, the opening being made up of a line of story books, one of which Shrek comes out to tell us his back story of being sent away to live in a swamp, shortly followed by Princess Fiona, whose own back story runs parallel with the ogre’s. Lines such as ‘cue the villagers’ and ‘this is the part where you’re meant to run away’ are fairly theatrical and make clear that Shrek not only is self-aware as a piece of theatre but also places itself in the world and language of story-telling.

It’s in the second act where the story’s morale lesson is explored deeper when we learn how Princess Fiona and Shrek aren’t so different after all (‘I Got You Beat’) and how being different can be a good thing (‘Freak Flag,’ featuring an impressive performance from Alice Fearn as Gingy). Carley Stenson is very funny as Princess Fiona and Dean Chisnall’s understudy Bradley Jaden is also great as Shrek. However, it is Neill McDermott’s camp Lord Farquaad who is most impressive spending nearly all of the show on his knees to much comic effect as he yearns to be in a stage show himself.

The balcony on Saturday evening was fairly noisy but then again maybe that is to be expected with a family show which has so many lines from the film franchise and ‘gimmick’-like references to other children’s stories. Another problem is that Richard Blackwood’s Donkey doesn’t quite reach the comic heights of Eddie Murphy’s performance and I can’t help but wonder that if you haven’t seen the films (who hasn’t) then you might have problems keeping up with the pace of the show and might not be able to relate to the main characters. Speaking of the main characters, even though Shrek is billed as the star of the show, there seems to be just as much focus is on Fiona, Donkey and the show-stealing Lord Farquaad.

Michael Billington noted that the music didn’t quite fill him with a feeling of euphoria like a musical should but I think that Jeanine Tesori’s score is nearly capable of doing that but it wasn’t quite uplifting enough to go through you and give you goose bumps. Tim Hatley’s design seems small compared to some other shows that have been on at this theatre in recent years (although Drury Lane has a nice link with the films) but there are plenty of different set pieces including a very impressive rope bridge (‘we crossed a bridge – that’s a nice metaphor’ cries Donkey) and a huge puppet dragon which flies over the audience at the end.

Perhaps it seems pretentious talking about the many layers of performance with a show like Shrek but as well it being post-modern like the films it is also a brilliant family show that fits in with many other screen-to-stage and children’s literature musicals and plays at the moment. I highly recommend you go and see it before it closes.

On a side note, thanks to the FOH and box office staff at Drury Lane for helping us with reallocating seats after letting us in a week early than we should have been there! They were very helpful.

Now in its final weeks, Shrek the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane until 24th February, 2013.

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