Children are most certainly not required as an excuse for enjoying the winning fairytale and panto combo that makes Shrek the sure-fire hit it is. Still appealing to those who loved the film when it came out over two decades ago, this is a show for kids of all ages. And for all it is stuffed with ogres, elves, wicked princes and imprisoned princesses (yes, there’s more than one), Shrek the Musical appeals to human emotions and 21st century concerns perhaps now more than ever.
A huge, projected story book and fireflies set the scene, and the sounds of the swamp squelch and burp even before the music has begun. We are, without a doubt, in the land of far away, and the clever use of projection will make the fantasy setting seem a whole lot bigger than it is.
But not everything is sweetness and light. Young Shrek has to make his way in the world alone at the age of seven, quickly learning that not everyone is happy to welcome outsized green monsters into their back yard – especially one whose appreciation of basic hygiene leaves something to be desired.
Antony Lawrence’s loveable ogre may (in well-established Shrek tradition) have a Scottish accent that comes and goes haphazardly like sunshine over Leith, but he quickly captures hearts by never letting us forget the sadness under his thick skin that comes from his tough start in life and barely-suppressed loneliness. Something, it turns out, he has in common with not only Princess Fiona (a hilariously feisty turn from Joanne Clifton, who has all the moves one would expect from a former Strictly professional) but also James Gillan’s Lord Farquaad – who has grown up even less than Peter Pan.
Even Brandon Lee Sears’ garrulous Donkey has his doe-eyed moments – he, like everyone else, needs to be wanted. It’s just that he wins round the audience quicker than Shrek as, together, they set off to claim Fiona for the less than chivalrous Farquaad.
It’s a clever, uber-physical performance from Sears, who flaunts his furry haunches shamelessly and reveals his inner Motown to smash his solo numbers. Maybe that’s why he has a bit of a thing for Cherece Richards’ Dragon, who storms the stage with her own powerful voice, which more than compensates for the slightly listless giant puppet following in her wake.
If the interval arrives with the suspicion that the main characters haven’t yet given all they’ve got in the locker, there’s no need to worry. Act Two burst into life with the arrival of rats. As if they’ve just sprung out of A Chorus Line, their snappy song and dance routine is typical of the sharp, sassy and versatile company that gives the show so much of its quirky humour and, in the end, completely irresistible energy.
From Pinocchio in denial to the big, bad wolf who yearns to be his true self, the fairytale characters (astutely nicked from the animated Shrek sequels) add hugely to the riotous turning upside down of happily-ever-afterness. In particular, a special shout out to the Gingerbread Man (sung with vocal pyrotechnics by Georgie Buckland), who threatens to run away with the show.
With Lord Farquaad’s best entrance bringing the house down, and some knowing asides that target the more mature kids, Shrek has been brought neatly up to date. And when the chorus of self-proclaimed fairytale ‘freaks’, banished from Lord F’s kingdom, finally take a stand, there’s no denying more than a hint of Pride celebration and an assertion of minority rights. “I don’t identify as a knight”, cries Donkey – “I’m a donkey!” Well, exactly.
If that all sounds a bit serious, it won’t feel like it. Everyone in this big party of a musical gets to be themselves in the end – not least Shrek and Fiona, bonding over a campfire and reminding us that no-one needs a soppy love duet when you can enjoy a giggle and a fart instead.
Reviewed at the Edinburgh Playhouse
Fun, fairytales and farts…consider The Recs a believer! ★★★★
Shrek The Musical Tour
Playhouse Theatre, Edinburgh until 27 January
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 30th Jan - 4th Feb
Sunderland Empire, Sunderland 6th - 10th Feb
Empire Theatre, Liverpool 12th - 17th Feb
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 20th - 25th Feb
Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes 27th Feb - 3rd Mar
Hull New Theatre, Hull 5th - 10th Mar
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham 12th - 17th Mar
Theatre Royal, Nottingham 19th - 24th Mar
Theatre Royal, Norwich 26th - 30th Mar
Grand Opera House, Belfast 2nd - 6th Apr
The Alexandra, Birmingham 9th - 14th Apr
Millennium Forum, Derry 16th - 21st Apr
Royal Derngate, Northampton 23rd - 27th Apr
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 29th Apr - 4th May
Eventim Apollo, London 19th Jul - 31st Aug