First published in The Times, Wednesday December 20 2017
It would be fair to say that stage musicals inspired by animated films have something of a chequered history. The experimental director and designer Julie Taymor gave Disney’s screen-to-stage version of The Lion King a truly theatrical treatment that still stands up 18 years on from its premiere. Other shows from the same stable, including lavish productions of Tarzan and The Little Mermaid, failed to exert the same grip on the public imagination.
Shrek the Musical, returning to UK theatres for a 13-month tour, falls somewhere between the originality of Taymor’s vision and the airbrushed aesthetics of lesser shows that originated as cartoons. In terms of production values and the commitment of the ensemble there is little to fault. Yet, ironically, the addition of the third dimension has the effect of flattening the subtlety and nuance that made the DreamWorks movie such a pleasure.
Pic: Helen Maybanks
Frankly, some of the show’s greatest strengths are also weaknesses. The costumes, designed by Tim Hatley, are colourful, faithful to images from the film and the children’s book by William Steig, and, in some cases, technically ingenious. Yet, they are also so busy and complicated that they tend to overwhelm the human beings underneath. Steffan Harri, the handsome and talented actor playing the ogre, has to sing and emote with his head encased in a kind of green helmet. The pageant of fairy tale characters among the supporting cast are required to twirl and high-kick in pantomime-style padding.
All of which is not to say that this remount, directed by Nigel Harman, who originated the role of the villainous Lord Farquaad in the West End, isn’t great fun in places. Marcus Ayton milks all the best wisecracks as Donkey, Shrek’s sidekick. Laura Main is very funny and dynamic as the princess with a humdinger of a secret while Samuel Holmes succeeds in bringing a measure of pathos to his role as the pint-sized baddie with a Napoleon complex.
Pic: Helen Maybanks
Visually, the show impresses. It is no mean feat to make the huge stage at the Playhouse appear full, but Hatley’s set gains depth and perspective from Duncan McLean’s clever video projections. To some extent, the technical wizardry (which includes a gigantic puppet dragon) proves a useful distraction from the blandness of the score, by Jeanine Tesori, which is deficient in catchy hooks and contains no discernible eleven o’clock number. Indeed, it is the curtain call rendition of The Monkees’ I’m a Believer that eventually gets the audience up on its feet and singing along. It is a fittingly upbeat ending to a show that, despite flaws, charts a lively route through the swamp towards a happy ever after.
Box office: 0844 871 3014, to January 7. Touring the UK and Ireland to January 19 2019. Shrekthemusical.co.uk