First Night: Shrek The Musical, Theatre Royal, London

'Shrek': the show that leaves rivals green with envy

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 15 June 2011 00:00 BST
Shrek: The Musical, here performed at the Theatre Royal in London
Shrek: The Musical, here performed at the Theatre Royal in London

The musical adaptation of Shrek – produced by Sam Mendes' Neal Street company and DreamWorks – enjoyed only a limited success on Broadway. For a show that had cost an estimated $25m (£15m), a year's run barely counts as respectable.

But to judge from the giddy glee and hilarity the London version of Shrek The Musical is arousing in its early audiences, it looks likely that we are going to be clutching the all-green, all-singing ogre in a warm embrace for quite some time.

What I love principally about the show, directed with great charm and elating zip by Jason Moore and Rob Ashford, is its delightfully uncynical freshness of spirit. Fairy stories that are about the nature and emotional import of fairy stories can end up feeling stiflingly incestuous. You would have to chloroform me to get me back into that meta-Oz-prequel, Wicked.

In Shrek the Musical, by contrast, wisdom is gradually attained with a sometimes cheeky, sometimes affecting lightness of touch, pulled along by Jeanine Tesori's jaunty score and the bouncy humour of David Lindsay-Abaire's lyrics and book.

The stage is dominated at the start by giant-sized tomes. Emerging from the door-like covers like unconsciously competitive neighbours are Nigel Lindsay's Shrek (an endearing study of gruff Scots affability and stoicism that turns into something deeper and more vulnerable) and, as Princess Fiona, Amanda Holden (proving that if Britain doesn't always have talent, she does, in a witty portrayal that pokes gentle fun at our heroine's dreamy fairy-tale expectations of life).

With shades of the stage version of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, most of the characters here seem not exactly unaware that they are the denizens of a musical. And it's not just the cheeky digs at other shows either, as when Baby Bear – exiled by the dastardly Lord Farquaad to Shrek's swamp, along with all the other story-book figures – suddenly channels Gypsy and drones "Mama's in the mud/Mama's in distress". No, as portrayed by the hysterically funny Nigel Harman, Farquaad is not just diminutive despot but a manically stage-struck wannabe diva, his little yellow puppet legs strutting forth in an insane, mincing march, his soldiers tightly choreographed into a parade of deranged showbiz cheeriness.

It's sometimes argued that the Shrek franchise rushes children into a premature knowingness. But boasting a spectacular dragon with the ability to launch into fire-breathing flight over the audience and a taste for Tamla Motown, this show will appeal across the board, though Richard Blackwood is disappointingly unfunny as Shrek's side-kick, the Donkey.

Shrek The Musical is a glorious tease, fielding tap-dancing Pied Piper rats and prisoners hand-jiving through wooden stocks. It's genuinely moving, too, in the way it resolves, because love prompts Princess Fiona to accept her ugly ogre side rather than through the usual transformation of plainness into dazzling good looks. As the reprise to "Big Bright Beautiful World" proclaims: "Fairy tales should really be updated." I look forward to seeing this show again.

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