Swindon Link columnist Jessica Durston attended the press night of Shrek The Musical at Oxford's New Theatre and has composed a review.
What are you doin’ in ma swaaaaaaamp!?
Is there anyone out there that can honestly, hand-on-heart say that they have not seen - and enjoyed - Shrek? The 2001 film has escaped being branded as merely a cult classic, and has wormed its way into the hearts of most people on the planet.
This being said - imagine how excited I was to have been invited to the press night of Shrek The Musical being held at Oxford’s New Theatre!
If you happen to be someone existing under a large rock in the deepest, darkest, cave that has not seen or even heard of Shrek - let me summarise the plot for you…
The story follows a gruff but secretly sensitive ogre named Shrek, who’s swamp dwelling becomes overrun with fairytale creatures, who have been sent there by the ruler of Duloc, Lord Farquaad. Unhappy with this arrangement, Shrek sets himself the mission of visiting Farquaad to get his swamp back to the way he likes it - empty.
He meets a talking donkey on the way and the pair become reluctant friends. They meet Lord Farquaad in Duloc and are tasked with rescuing Princess Fiona from a dragon-guarded tower in exchange for the deeds to Shrek’s swamp. Once rescued, Princess Fiona and Shrek find out they have more in common than they bargained for. Shrek’s small worldview is widened and his life plans are turned upside down when he finds himself suddenly unwilling to return Fiona to the small, selfish, and villainous man who she believes must be her one true love. How will this tale end? Will there be a happily ever after?
Created by David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics), Jeanne Tesori (music), Nick Winston, and Samuel Holmes (directors), Shrek The Musical sees the well-loved story of the classic animated film transition perfectly to the stage. There are so many lovely nods to the movie within the humorous dialogue, costume, and character list, without the show feeling like a hollow carbon copy.
Antony Lawrence took on the protagonal role of Shrek. Not being of Scottish background, he did a noble job keeping up the ogre’s iconic accent, and wearing all the padding which basically covered his entire body. He brought out Shrek’s fierce, funny, and sensitive side and brought the beloved film character to life on stage.
Playing opposite Antony as Princess Fiona, was Strictly Come Dancing star Joanne Clifton. Taking inspiration from the version of this character that Cameron Diaz made so famous, Joanne’s Fiona is spunky, fun and sweet, with sweeping vocals fit for any Disney princess. Just as she ‘burned the floor’ when performing in the dance tour of the similar name (Burn The Floor), you could almost see smoke coming off Joanne’s heels in her many dance breaks within the musical. It would have been a crime not to allow her the opportunity to showcase her moves live on stage, wouldn’t it? Spoiler alert - the dancing in this musical really is breathtaking.
Another on-stage couple playing opposite one another was Brandon Lee Sears (as Donkey) and Cherece Richards (as Dragon AND the Wicked Witch). The pair both delivered show-stopping performances and complemented one another with their smooth and soulful voices. Brandon particularly popped during his solo number ‘Don’t Let Me Go’ and Cherece blew every audience member away with her powerhouse rendition of ‘Forever’, decked out in her Dragon getup.
James Gillan as Lord Farquaad was another great casting choice. His high-energy, punchy vocals and campy mannerisms worked so well and he would easily steal everyone’s attention during the scenes for which he was present.
As there are so many colourful characters in Shrek The Musical, I find myself unable to talk about every individual cast member here in this review - but rest assured, I was impressed with them all. The ensemble numbers with all the fairytale creatures were a feast for the eyes, and provided comic relief when Shrek and Donkey’s journey to the Dragon’s tower became more intense.
It was nice to see that the ensemble or ‘swing’ cast members were given a proper opportunity to shine with solo parts to sing within certain numbers, and plenty of front-of-stage dance time. It is not often you see every cast member given time to showcase themselves in scenes independent of the smaller group of main actors. This was definitely the case for ‘Freak Flag’ - the raucous anthem celebrating individuality, performed solely by the supporting fairytale characters.
Moreover, the set design by Philip Witcomb was magical. You really felt as if you were brought right into the fairytale with all the characters, and whisked away to Shrek’s swamp, and then to the castle of Duloc. As well as large set pieces, there was a screen that provided an animated and life-like backdrop for the action that was ensuing on-stage. The backdrop was able to project landscapes that looked like they had been taken directly from the Shrek movie. This helped to create immersion - especially for the younger audience members.
Effort was also being made offstage at this press night event, with the Piano Bar’s glitzy green decorations and balloons. Staff at the New Theatre also seized the opportunity to don their Shrek, Donkey, or Dragon ears to join in with the festivities of the evening while they worked.
Furthermore, in addition to designing the set, Philip Witcomb also designed the wonderful costumes for the performers. All the characters looked incredible - like they had crawled straight from the pages of a storybook. Philip’s Shrek and Fiona costumes also bear a strong resemblance to the ones from the film.
On another note, as well as real-life human actors, Shrek The Musical also utilises puppetry to bring some of the film’s popular characters to the stage. I’ll leave it as a surprise as to which ones. Lets just say puppet designer Jimmy Grimes, and the talented puppeteers get a pat on the back for their work.
But now let’s get back to discussing some more of the stand out musical numbers shall we? The Shrek musical score includes a couple of well known songs from the feature film, including the tongue-in-cheek ditty ‘Welcome to Duloc’ and the memorable ‘I’m A Believer’ (originally recorded by The Monkees).
Aside from these recognisable numbers, the musical soundtrack also has an extensive list of fantastic original songs. Two I feel I must mention are ‘I Know It’s Today’ and ‘What’s Up Duloc?’ The first is a song performed by not one, not two, but three Princess Fionas. It’s a very sweet song about the agonising, seemingly-endless waiting that Fiona must endure until a prince comes to rescue her. It builds and lets each princess (one little, one teenaged, and one a fully grown adult) belt out their respective parts and wow audience members together in wonderful harmony.
The latter - ‘What’s Up Duloc?’ - is a full-on cabaret-style number that is absolutely dazzling. Lord Farquaad, and his devoted Duloc-ians take to the stage for this entertaining jazzy number and bring the house down with the help of the brilliant choreography from the show’s director Nick Winston. James Gillan really gives a spectacular performance in this solo Farquaad number and you can’t help but get swept up by his infectious energy.
If I haven’t made it clear enough already, this musical really is a family-friendly, upbeat, treat. There’s something for everyone, no matter your age. Whether you’re a fan of the 2001 movie or not, Shrek The Musical is fun, flatulent, and unforgettable. Book a ticket while you still can!
More information and tickets for Shrek The Musical can be found at https://shrekuktour.com/.
More information about Oxford’s New Theatre can be found at https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-theatre-oxford/.
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