New Wimbledon Theatre and Touring
First, the film rocked a newly minted millennium, then the musical shook Broadway seven years later, next a revitalised production swayed the West End for another three years. Now everyone’s favourite green ogre is on the road again with a UK tour. But how does the delineation of Shrek land with audiences perhaps unaware of the 22-year-long journey?
I am talking about the little ones. A small caveat, I don’t have children. But I (like some of you reading this) was once a child, helpfully just at the time when this film premiered. I loved its tongue-thrusting barbs at the rest of Disney and grungy soundtrack. It felt a departure from what had gone before it, being both a critical and economic success for DreamWorks, persevering in the public consciousness with even a Gen Z revival.
But of course, things must change, or so I keep being told. One actually sung song does not a musical make. Presenting a challenging but potentially rewarding job for musical makers Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. However, the story: a grumpy monster (Shrek) forced through utter selfishness to save the stranded Princess Fiona from a dragon, at the behest of the miniature/maniacal Lord Farquaad with the help of various fairy tale creatures and talking donkey (and breath). Prime musical theatre fodder surely? Think Into the Woods but for kids, and obviously less wordy.
So how does one go nomad with the big and brassy West End set that people expect? Leaving designer Philip Witcomb in a predicament, how to fit the same bones into 23 or so venues, from Derry to Plymouth. He has gone down the projection route with a (too short) screen clunking down for all scene changes. Much of the journeying is done by revolving images and cast members “running” on the spot (my favourite). The medieval grandeur of the West End is sadly a world away in Wimbledon.
Yet we have some strong vocals and quirky reinventions of the well-known characters. Joanne Clifton as the cursed princess, with bite and fight, what a gift. Reworking and ridiculing the tropes of her royal birth, and at the same time providing vocal clout throughout, and comedy. Brandon Lee Sears equally as the wise-cracking Donkey makes the role his own, a little softer and camper than Eddie Murphy’s famous interpretation: stretching his fluffed legs out and slowly turning to the audience with conspiratorially knowing glances. A completely shameless dance sequence with him and some raunchy blind mice, yes, I know but somehow it works, an example of Nick Winston’s bolshy choreography. Precisely what the musical needs more of, razzle dazzle. Cherece Richards as Dragon stuns us with blasts of her incendiary voice in her battling/love song with Shrek and Donkey respectively. Despite puppet problems, which I will touch on later, she fills the space with a furious belt that will take your eyebrows off. Antony Lawrence’s eponymous anti-hero is more complex than Mike Myers’ version but overshadowed by the other voices surrounding him.
Lindsay-Abaire’s book/lyrics and Tesori’s music do try and reference popular musicals throughout like the film did within its own genre, however clumsily. We get Dreamgirls with Richards’ tower scene, Rent, Hamilton and Wicked are also very quickly nodded to, in an attempt to keep the adults awake. Tesori’s music is passible, and certainly not the biggest problem faced by the production.
No no no, that is directorial laziness from Samuel Holmes and Winston. Examples of inattention to the script, or even common sense are littered everywhere. Shrek climbing through Fiona’s Tower window, exclaiming “Is that the only exit”, then carrying her through the wall to exit stage left, what? Jimmy Grimes’ simplistic dragon puppet being unable to move its mouth, so poor Richards having to get dragoned-up as the human-shaped-vocal-personification (which as mentioned is a blessing), but then puppet and actress exiting different ways, double what?
Lastly and most bemusing, Lord Farquaad’s whole character. Played with a rather one-tone campness by James Gillan, the short jokes are his only comedy resource. Famously in past productions, the actor playing him is on his knees, tiny shoes attached to his patellas. Crafting blocking around his limited movement, and at points transforming into a puppet completely apart from his head. Gillan for whatever reason is not on his knees, therefore the same height as many other characters, but with unchanged lines. The song lyrics ‘Things are looking up here in Duloc’ make little to no sense, and an added-on (and completely unneeded) backstory of his gnome father leaves us scratching our heads.
But it’s not only the plot editions that are undesirable. This version is dramatically trimmed, and one of the many things lamentably lost is the mirror, the film’s reluctant and hilarious magical looking glass. Surely a projected face isn’t too much trouble for a production already heavily relying on projection?
These are the bigger examples, but throughout an uninspiring set, and creative choices that would (and do) confuse a child doom the production. Maybe bring your little munchkins along, as there is colour, flash and dancing white mice. But any production of a famous film or book should add to the legacy. This is not only missing much of the film’s arch humour but also subtracts a lot of its charm and titular characters. The final song ‘I’m a Believer’ sung by the whole cast still brings back my happy early years watching Shrek for the first time. Yet two and a half minutes of The Monkees doesn’t make up for two hours and 35 minutes of disappointment.