Unfortunately closing in February, Shrek the Musical has won the hearts of many in what will have been a two-year run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane come the winter. The conversion of one of DreamWorks' biggest silver screen hits to stage was always considered a risk but after a successful Broadway initiation, it moved across the pond to positive reviews. This West End production has seen many a cast change and I think it's the widespread view that this current cast, who will see the show to its close, are the best of the lot.
Dean Chisnall's performance of the eponymous title role is near-perfection. His vocals are crystal clear, smooth and effortless and I couldn't fault him. He plays Shrek perfectly; enough endearing vulnerability to get the audience onside but equally a spirit and determination that can inspire even the youngest watchers. It tells you how highly rated Dean's performance is, that he was actually first cover Shrek in the original London cast of the show (and who I saw in my first and only other visit to Shrek), before a promotion arising after original principal Nigel Lindsay left. By all accounts Dean does a wonderful job, has excellent chemistry with his Princess Fiona and will hopefully not be off a West End stage for too long after the end of this run.
As London's third official Princess Fiona, you might think that Carley Stenson had a lot to live up to. Following Britain's Got Talent judge (some irony there, perhaps?) Amanda Holden and Girls Aloud's Kimberley Walsh struggles with the role, she may also have had cause for concern. But luckily Carley's interpretation is streets ahead of anything that preceded it and in truth, only her understudy Alice Fearn gives her a run for her money. Vocally secure, she is a talented dancer, comedienne and this experience all shows. It's funny how casting a trained actress in a leading West End role seems to work, isn't it? She has all the comic and cue timing down to perfection and alongside Donkey and Farquaad, she is involved in some of the funniest moments of the show.
Speaking of the devil(s) - original cast member Richard Blackwood takes on the notoriously difficult task of putting Eddie Murphy's Donkey on a stage and ex-EastEnder Neil McDermott takes on the notoriously difficult task of spending two hours each night on his knees as pint-sized ruler of Duloc, Lord Farquaad. Both nail the comedic sides to their character and regularly have the audience in rapturous applause just thanks to their many spectacular entrances. Donkey's first in particular is very clever. Credit must also go to McDermott who can't have it easy in this show but he might as well have walked on his knees his whole life. The whole performance is effortless and some of his dancing brings tears to your eyes for its sheer outrageousness.
The only fault I can find with the principals lies, sadly, when Blackwood sings as Donkey. Having improved ten-fold since I first saw the show, to give him credit, he has clearly worked on tightening up his act. But there were far more flat notes than in tune ones and he almost spoils the end of Act One when he tries and sadly fails to harmonise with Dean and Carley in Who I'd Be, and the cringe-inducing verse that's left of Travel Song was difficult to listen to. On the whole, it just doesn't work. But in response, Richard would argue he is a comedian first and foremost and his talent in this area does show.
The sparkling jewel in Shrek's crown though, is Landi Oshinowo as the Dragon who has the most wonderfully powerful and emotive voice. The number Forever, towards the end of the first Act, is one of the show's real highlights and it is only a shame there are no more real opportunities for her to shine vocally other than in the curtain call. On the subject of Dragon, I'd like to also give the puppeteers a mention who do a wonderful job in bringing her to life. Visually, it's truly spectacular and they are clearly very skilled in what the y do, so bravo to Jonathan, Ste, Damien and Lee at this particular performance.
That seems a perfect segway to laud the ensemble in this production who are as magnificent and varied as they are bright and colourful. All the fairy tale creatures under the sun are brought to life by vivid costumes and clear characterisation. The group dance numbers are terrific; in particular I have to mention Freak Flag which acts as the flagship song for the whole production, and in which there is also a fantastic little aside to Les Miserables. Other highlights for me were Jonathan Stewart as Pinocchio who was uncanny, Joseph Prouse, in all his ensemble tracks and especially the Pied Piper, who lights up the stage when he walks on it and also Alice Fearn as the loveable and unfortunate Gingy. I've always wondered how she manages to keep that voice up for the whole show without hurting her throat or jeopardising her Fiona performances, so fair play to her for that! The Young Shreks and Fionas should also be commended for keeping their cools on the stage of such a massive theatre and turning in apt supporting performances.
It really is a great production that will put a smile on your face. As mentioned, the performances won't disappoint and it is one for the young and the old who will find different reasons to raise a smile or two. Open until Sunday 24th February, if you get a chance, then go and see it!
At this performance, the cast was:
Dean Chisnall (Shrek), Carley Stenson (Princess Fiona), Richard Blackwood (Donkey), Neil McDermott (Lord Farquaad), Landi Oshinowo (Dragon/Ugly Duckling), Jonathan Stewart (Pinocchio/Dragon Puppeteer), Stephanie Bron (Snow Queen), Ste Clough (Pig, Straw/Dragon Puppeteer), Ricardo Coke-Thomas (White Rabbit), Lucie Downer (Baby Bear/Blind Mouse), Oliver Eyre (Papa Ogre/Pig, Bricks/Thelonius/Knight), Alice Fearn (Gingy/Sugar Plum Fairy), Lucy Maria-Gill (Humpty Dumpty/Blind Mouse), Clare Halse (Tweedle Dee), Rosanna Hyland (Teen Fiona/Little Red Riding Hood), Aaron Lee Lambert (Pig, Sticks/Walter/Knight), Marc Leslie (Mad Hatter/Knight), Alastair Natkiel (Captain of the Guard/Wolf/Bishop), Damien Poole (Jack and the Beanstalk), Joseph Prouse (King Harold/Guard/Knight/Pied Piper), Ashley J Russell (Mama Ogre/Mama Bear), Lucy Tapp (Queen Lillian/Wicked Witch), Lee William-Davis (Wizard), Megan Manly (Young Shrek), Paris Price (Young Fiona/Dwarf)
Also in the cast are Jon Scott-Clark, Blaise Colangelo, Patrick George, Alexandra Grierson, Bradley Jaden, Grant Murphy, Karli Vale, Kerry Winter with Jaynie Awcock, Emily Carey, Orla Gidea, Hannah Gurling, Imogen Gurney and Skye Meade.