The New Theatre is home to Shrek: The Musical until next Sunday as part of its first nationwide UK tour since making its way to the West End from Broadway in 2011.
Shrek (Dave Chisnall) and Princess Fiona (Faye Brookes) are familiar characters to anyone who has seen any of the four Shrek films, let alone the multiple spin-offs that followed. It's a varied show that follows the basic plot of the first in the Shrek series, taking in an array of musical genres, panto-style comedy and choreographic styles, and it moves along at a frantic pace at times.
The stand-out performer is Gerard Carey as Lord Farquaad, the evil villain who banishes all fairytale characters from his land to the swamp, to Shrek the ogre's disappointment. Farquaad is far more central to the comedy of the show than its cinematic inspiration, which is surely not accidental. His short stature – a comedic vehicle used even better in this interpretation than the film I think – is cleverly and wackily reproduced by a one-man nativity donkey-style get-up, the costume's transparency only helping to bring in some of the biggest laughs of the evening as he shuffles and dances across the stage, prop legs leading the way.
Idriss Kargbo also takes responsibility for a lot of the humorous lines as Donkey, Shrek's faithful friend (regardless of whether Shrek wants him to be or not), and he's energetic, funny and charming in equal measure.
The songs are nothing groundbreaking, but they do their job well and there are a few gems among them. I Know It's Today is a ballad in which a young Princess Fiona dreams of her future to great comedic effect (“He'll propose, on one knee, and our pre-nup will be binding”). I Think I Got You Beat sees Shrek and Fiona go toe-to-toe in a lyrical game of “who had the worst childhood?” but descends into, ahem, childish antics, and is one of the most entertaining numbers. This Is Our Story, meanwhile, is a feel-good celebration of the journeys that the characters have taken throughout the evening, and is a fitting penultimate song.
Candace Furbert gives the most sensational vocal performance of the show as the Dragon, voicing the huge (rather impressive) puppet in the song Forever (at times a homage to Fontella Bass's Rescue Me) reappearing as a human (in dragon form) as the cast take their bows and perform the I'm a Believer finale. The rest of the smaller parts - the band of fairytale characters - were great too, especially the three camp little pigs, who were a highlight that I'd have liked to have seen more of. The Dragon was a definite highlight of a pretty basic set, probably necessary for the sheer amount of set changes.
As you'd expect, a lot of the audience were those with children, although by no means exclusively. Fart jokes aside, I didn't hear as many childish giggles as I'd expected, which made me wonder if the humour of the film had been lost in translation. That was until I asked my 7-year-old what he thought the funniest part was, and he said “the bit where the guards are with the gingerbread man and trying to scare him, and they all have swords, but one of them has a spatula”. He and his peers certainly showed their appreciation for the fart jokes (and fart song) more vocally, but his response explained the wide-eyed quiet appreciation the rest of the time.
Shrek in movie form does a great job of making adults and children laugh together, at the same time, at different levels of the same joke. This wasn't always apparent in the show, with it being quite obvious which were 'kid jokes' and which were 'adult jokes' - toilet humour for the kids, Carry On-style sexual innuendo for the adults. At times this made it feel a bit disjointed, but it improved in the second half.
A rude interruption through a technical hitch, bringing the curtain down temporarily for two or three minutes at a very inopportune moment only a few minutes before the culmination, was dealt with with agile and humorous elegance by Shrek as the curtain came back up. “Fiona, are you alright?!”, he joked, forcing her to stifle a laugh and carry on.
Shrek: The Musical tries to do a huge amount in a very short space of time, and gets a lot of it right. If you love the film, you won't be disappointed by this musical endeavour. It retains its charm. And if you happen to be looking for a bit of panto thrown in, along with a helping of decent songs, you may just be in luck.