Review: ‘Shrek: the Musical’ at Leeds Grand Theatre

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Adam Bruce

  • United Kingdom Critic

The ‘Shrek’ franchise is one of the most successful in the animated film industry. With memorable characters and a great crossover plot and concept, it was only a matter of time before it would receive a musical stage adaptation. This Christmas, audiences that haven’t seen the show in its previous incarnations will get the chance to see it at the Leeds Grand Theatre, where it completes the menu forming the backbone of the city’s seasonal theatre offerings. 

I’m pretty sure everyone has seen or heard about ‘Shrek’, but just in case you haven’t: we’re in the land of Far Far Away. Shrek (Steffan Harri) is a fearsome ogre living in isolation in a swamp, content with the peace and all the slugs he can eat. One day, however, the smarmy villain Lord Farquaad (Samuel Holmes) exiles all the fairytale characters to Shrek’s swamp, and bargains that he can only have his land back if he rescues Princess Fiona (Laura Main) from a tower. With a sassy Donkey (Marcus Ayton) in tow, Shrek ventures off on his quest, where he’ll find more than he bargained for. 

Staying true to the original screenplay, writer and lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire captures the comedic, magical essence present within the original film and expertly condenses it for a live setting, where it very much feels comfortable and at home on the stage. The piece is given an almost independent existence from its filmic source, and director Nigel Harman’s vision for the piece gives it a firm sense of dynamism that keeps audiences unfamiliar with the source material engaged. Yet, the piece’s artistic independence is somewhat marred by a fairly mediocre score from Jeanine Tesori, which I feel really lacks memorability. As I left the theatre, while I felt uplifted by the inevitable and enjoyable inclusion of The Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’, I didn’t find myself humming or recalling any of the original songs. 

But that’s my only gripe with the production. The cast and production team really have brought the world of ‘Shrek’ to life in this adaptation. The whole ensemble of performers excel in their execution of the score and make the best of it, with limitless energy and a clear sense of infectious enjoyment that doesn’t look like it be diminished by the rigours of repeated performance anytime soon. They radiate joy and atmosphere from their skilled portrayals and really commit to bringing the play-world to life, with soaring vocals and perfectly inhabited portrayals of the fairytale characters. There’s also some excellent puppetry, with a memorable and expertly conceived appearance from the dragon that guards Princess Fiona, adding to the magic and conceptual command regarding the portrayal of the fairytale creatures. 

Holmes as Lord Farquaad, with his superb comedic timing and masterful inhabitation of the costume, is a particular highlight, and while I’m sure his knees will probably be killing him at the end of the run, his portrayal and the design choice of the character is a stroke of theatrical genius. Integral to the piece’s comedic success, this decision to have a tall actor portray the role has sparked debate as to whether an actor with dwarfism should play the role. I would strongly argue that any opposition to the 6-foot actor playing the role would be quashed upon seeing the performative conventions of the creative decision. 

Farquaad is never referred to as having dwarfism, and is simply a visual metaphor for an arrogant gentleman suffering the colloquial ‘little man syndrome’, thinking he’s more important than he actually is: Shrek humorously points out ‘Hey, do you think maybe he’s compensating for something?’ upon seeing his ridiculously large castle, clearly alluding to Farquaad’s inherent lack of power and ridiculous desire for it. Surely having an actor with dwarfism portray the role would detract from this, and would account for a seriously unhealthy amount of unjust and horrendous discrimination? I’m fascinated with how this production will add to the discussion around the representation of disability in theatrical contexts, as well as the physical representation of character flaws such as arrogance, and must say it was a bold, brave and well-wrought creative decision to tap into theatre’s unique semiotic storytelling properties to represent the film’s portrayal Farquaad in such a way.

On the note of Farquaad’s representation, that’s a perfect segue into the fact ‘Shrek: the Musical’ doesn’t take itself too seriously, but instead focuses on delivering a, for the most part, well-conceived musical adaptation. With a beautiful scenographic design that captures the essence of the film and memorable performances from the whole cast, this is one piece of musical theatre that’s well worth taking a look at, and is ultimately great fun for the whole family.

‘Shrek: the Musical’ is at Leeds Grand Theatre until 6th January. For more information, tickets and a full cast and creative list, please visit: https://www.leedsgrandtheatre.com/Online/default.asp