It has been 10 years since the release of Shrek, the sharpest CGI animation Pixar never made, and its grouchy Scottish star has finally made his emergence, battered and bruised by three depressing sequels, onto the West End.
It is easy, then, to be less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a re-tread of the original which is an hour longer and almost 20 songs heavier. By half-way through Act 1 you may well be congratulating yourself on your prescience and pondering whether those smiling ushers in the Shrek-eared headbands would notice your early exit; stick with it and you start to see why Broadway critics found it hard to sneer. Shrek is about as unimaginative as an evening in the West End can be, but it’s also a lot of fun.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s book doesn’t so much as expand the plot of the original film as it does sketch in a few background details, and for the most part these are welcome. Opening number ‘Big Bright Beautiful World’ sees the young Fiona locked up in the dragon-guarded tower and an equally early Shrek turfed out of his parents’ home, and these youthful cast members provide many of the show’s highlights. The extra backstory that we’re given may be slight, but it does provide the show’s emotional peaks with a little more resonance and depth. Elsewhere the script and story will be (over) familiar to anyone who’s had a brush with the titular gassy ogre. Most of the film’s best lines are here, and most of its best comic set-pieces (though where was Robin Hood? Surely that was the perfect opportunity for a knees up?) remain in place, and that’s the crux of the problem. Nigel Lindsay has a good stab at Shrek, and Nigel Harman’s Lord Farquaad steals every scene he’s in, but the show can’t help feeling like a tribute to the film rather than a theatrical entity in its own right. This is nowhere more painful than in Richard Blackwood’s turn as Donkey. More of an undercooked, uncommitted Eddie Murphy impersonation than anything else, it rarely raises a smile.
The new songs are unremarkable for the most part, though Lindsay-Abaire finds occasional opportunities for some nice subversive lyrics, ‘when you are grotesque, life is Kafka-esque’ is an early treat, and Jeanine Tesori’s music is perfectly fit to purpose. Compared to her work on Thoroughly Modern Millie, however, there’s little here that’s truly memorable. There are one or two exceptions; ‘Who I’d Be’, Shrek’s reflection on his own identity and its limitations soars like the best of Menken and the Dragon’s heartfelt love-song ‘Forever’ is a match for a spectacular puppet and the superb performer (Landi Oshinowo) who delivers it.
The production design is generally as tight as you would expect, and there are plenty of moments of real spectacle as the stage convulses into lava-riven chasms and soaring towers. One unfortunate consequence of this ambition is that many of the sets are so complex they require the bulk of the stage to prepare; leaving the action crammed in front a curtain on a downstage strip a few feet deep. The dialogue just isn’t strong enough to make Shrek and Donkey walking back and forth against a dark backdrop compelling, and it happens far too often in Act 1. Even the children sitting around me were yawning into their Swamp Slushies.
They’d been won around by the climax though, as had everyone else. When the pace picks up in Act 2 it carries the performances along with it, and though the songs become increasingly obscure (‘Freak Flag’ is an odd moment of body and identity politics, ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ a catchy rap battle-cum-flatulence contest) they just rock that little bit more. At the end of the day, this is a slick commercial operation with just enough heart to save its soul. Compared to Beauty and the Beast it’s a masterpiece of invention, and it’s sure to keep families happy until Matilda gets to London this winter. One final note, poking fun at other musicals is a refreshing and appropriate addition to Shrek’s satirical armoury, but parodying The Lion King? Directors Jason Moore and Rob Ashford may have just about got away with Shrek The Musical, but when it comes to children’s cinema on stage, this is still Taymor’s town.