Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2
Opened 10 June, 2011

The last time I reviewed Nigel Lindsay, a momentary brainstorm led me to call him Nigel Harman. I have since lived in dread of such an occasion as this, when both would share a stage. This time, though, even I can tell them apart: one (Lindsay in the title role) is big, green and trumpet-eared, the other (Harman as Lord Farquaad) shuffles around on his knees in best Jose Ferrer fashion, whilst appearing improbably gymnastic with the little trompe-l’oeil legs affixed before him.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s script includes most of the best lines and gags from the Dreamworks screenplay, with some canny omissions (adieu, Monsieur Hood) and questionable additions (of which more later). The result is even more knowing than the film (in one musical number, the exiled Fairytale Creatures rally around their collective “Freak Flag” on which is blazoned a parody of the Les Mis waif), but with enough fun and naughtiness to keep kids entranced and so cover the entire family waterfront. It is, as my companion observed, not unlike pantomime in that respect, but a panto with immense production values including a dragon that flies in over the heads of the audience.
Lindsay rollicks and rumbles with brio (and, on his first entrance, looks uncannily like John Prescott). As his talking donkey sidekick, Richard Blackwood makes all the right moves (including stooping slightly so he doesn’t look taller than Shrek), but often cannot help reining himself in as if afraid to look a prat; it’s noticeable that during his big soul number Blackwood gives his all, because here Donkey is indisputably cool. As Princess Fiona, Amanda Holden shows impressive acting, singing and dancing skills but, whether through stage make-up or treatment, wears the mask-like face more usually seen on (most) American actresses of a certain age.
To replace the sourced songs used in the film, Jeanine Tesori’s score is for the most part bouncy pop/rock or genre pastiche, although Act One finale “Who I’d Be”, being seriously emotional, veers into mandatory contemporary-American-stage-musical idiom. Elsewhere, though, the schmaltz wells up. Shrek is given an abandoned-by-parents backstory to match the Princess’s so that they are truly kindred spirits, and the climactic revolt against Farquaad is now augmented by an uprising among the fairytale folk, singing proudly, “Whatever makes us different makes us strong”. That a work so smart and self-aware could descend into such a gloop of vapid affirmation-by-numbers is infuriating, and for me ruins the close of what is otherwise a bright, zippy, fun evening.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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