It’s a long way from the mean streets of Walford to Shrek’s swamp, but former Eastender and rookie director Nigel Harman has pulled together a colourful version of this smash hit musical which is actually better than the West End.
On his debut as a director Harman has given his talented cast huge latitude in a show that is packed full of belly laughs and, surprisingly for a show that is a tie-in to a cartoon movie franchise, some very decent tunes.
The plot such as it is involves lonely ogre Shrek having his swamp home invaded by a cavalcade of dysfunctional fairy tale characters banished from Duloc by the villainous Lord Farquaad. In order to restore balance in his life, he has to find a bride for Farquaad. And so Shrek sets off on a quest aided by a talking donkey – it’s that kind of show – to rescue Princess Fiona from her tower prison which is guarded by a fierce dragon.
In fairness, most musicals don’t have much more complicated plots than this but the brilliance of David Lindsay-Abaire’s witty book and lyrics is that there are plenty of laughs for the kids, and loads of ribald gags for the adults escorting their own little ogres to the theatre. Lindsay-Abraide has great fun subverting musical theatre tradition, taking affectionate potshots at some classic musicals including one set in Africa
No-one had more fun with the seaside smut than Gerard Carey who runs riot with comedy villain Farquaad, pulling off arch knowing glances you can see from the back, and consummate comedy timing that made even this jaded critic laugh out loud. Not only is his Farquaad even camper than Frank-N-Furter, he also plays his role in a very unusual position yet still manages to belt the tunes out. Harman won an Olivier when he played this role, but he says generously that the quite brilliant Carey has surpassed him.
In any other show Dean Chisnall as Shrek would be taking all the plaudits, but he isn’t too shabby either as he comes here straight from the West End. It’s no mean feat to give a farting, anti-social green ogre real humanity, and his is the best voice in the show.
Faye Brookes is suitably vulnerable and bratty as the demanding Princess rescued from a tower only to fall in love with an ogre, and she led the line wonderfully in an utterly bonkers Busby Berkeley-inspired tap routine during the mighty Morning Person which closes acts two. She proved she is equal vocally to an on-fire Chisnall in a powerful Who I’d Be at the end of act one.
Relative newcomer Idriss Kargdo manages to exorcise the ghost of Eddie Murphy’s movie Donkey, deciding instead to channel Barry White, Huggy Bear and Marvin Gaye.
The real test of a big touring production is the quality of the supporting cast. Harman has let them loose and there is not one weak link in the energetic ensemble playing the deeply flawed fairy tale legends of our childhood. There is something strangely moving watching Pinocchio, the Big Bad Wolf, Gingerbread Man et al bellying out Freak Flag as they man-up to take on Farquaad. Even funnier for fans of Hair.
There is serious money behind this show and the £3 million sunk into it can be seen in the dizzying number of ingenious sets coming on and off with hardly any flaws, plus an impressive dragon (which barely fits on the stage) propelled around by four skilled puppeteers.
In recent years Leeds Grand has attracted the best of the West End without the hassle of going to that there London. So if you live in Leeds and haven’t got a ticket then you’re missing out on two hours of blissful escapist fun that brings out inner child in all of us. It is quite simply a must-see show for big and small kids alike.
Shrek the Musical runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until August 17, 2014 and opens at Manchester Palace Theatre on December 2, 2014 running until January 11, 2015