Shrek the Musical, Sunderland Empire

IT'S barely out of panto season and a touring show featuring many elements festive productions centre on has descended on Wearside.

While the story told is almost as hackneyed as Dick Whittington, with ultra-slick routines, a fairytale storybook-style set, strong vocal performances, and a barrage of gags, Shrek the Musical more than holds its own.

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The audience is reintroduced to green curmudgeon and reluctant hero Shrek, who retains Mike Myers' soft Scottish accent, and quickly learn of both his and Princess Fiona's unfortunate childhoods.

As Shrek rescues her from a tower where she has been imprisoned, there's a spectacular scene featuring a minibus-sized dragon operated by four cast members that flies around the stage chasing the ogre.

Ironically, the heartlessness of their parents - and a shared passion for releasing bodily gas - related in the song I Think I Got You Beat sees them fall in love before the princess gets to meet the pint-sized peer who intends to marry her.

Enter Lord Farquaad, who steals the show. His sole challenger is the hilarious braying Donkey, who takes the role of a Shakespearean jester.

But Farquaad carries off the feat of performing all the singing and dancing routines on his knees, which are hidden by a black cloak. He uses a pair of prosthetic legs to great effect, with suggestive humour, high kicks and by dangling them over castle walls.

Ingenious well-drilled routines, often with fairytale characters, stamped quality all over the production. Initially it was hard to see where it was going when the Pied Piper appeared. Moments later, the curtain had been raised by just a foot to reveal a troupe of tap-dancing rats.

Additionally, the costumes and sets are stunning and contradict the show's heartwarming central message - "beautiful isn't always pretty".

Despite these positives and the show being packed with songs and seamless changes, it took a while to build a head of steam.

But by the time the climax came with Shrek and Fiona singing Neil Diamond's I'm A Believer, the audience was too.

*Until Sunday, February 11. Tickets 0844-871-3022 or visit atgtickets.com/venues/sunderland-empire/