Viv Hardwick goes under the green skin of Shrek the Musical to discover how an animated Hollywood movies was always destined to play UK venues like Drury Lane and Newcastle

WHAT are the chances of two big green mean machines of West End musical visiting the North-East in the same month? While over at Sunderland Empire, the wonderfully Wicked is coming to town in March, at Newcastle Theatre Royal that other movie-to-musical success story, Shrek, is ready to make the rest of the region green with envy.

Four years after its West End opening at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the touring version heading for Wearside is in the hands of debutant director Nigel Harman, who is best-known for EastEnders but really got down on his knees to play the diminutive rascal Lord Farquaad in the original revamped Shrek, starring alongside Nigel Lindsay as Shrek, Richard Blackwood as Donkey and Amanda Holden as Princess Fiona

“I think this moment was always coming. Those people who have worked with me and know me well have always seen that it was in my DNA and what better way to do it than jumping in at the deep end with a huge production like Shrek the Musical. I love this show and it makes me laugh every time I see it. If I have half as much fun directing the UK and Ireland tour as I did playing Lord Farquaad at Drury Lane, then I’m a happy man. My job is to translate that fun for the audiences,” says the actor who picked up a best supporting role in a musical Olivier for his work.

Dean Chisnall, who took over from Lindsay, is now the touring anti-hero based on the 2001 DreamWorks film Shrek and William Steig's 1990 book Shrek! with Faye Brookes as Princess Fiona, Gerard Carey as Lord Farquaad and Idriss Kargbo as Donkey.

“Taking the first Shrek as its inspiration – one of the best launch pads you could ever have – our production uses the best elements of the film: the animated look, the feel, and those incredibly witty scenes with Donkey, and transposes them onto the stage. Then we add big, bold, song and dance layers on top.

"I found the movie really warm and enjoyed the subversion of traditional fairy-tale characters that DreamWorks, and especially the Shrek franchise, were pioneers at. When Shrek opened at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, I was playing Lord Farquaad and winning the Olivier Award was the icing on the cake. Performing the show eight times a week in front of a live audience, I got to witness first-hand as the audience getting sucked in to the humour and the spectacle. From the moment it starts, they are there on the journey with you and I think that’s a really powerful and quite unique experience for both the cast and the audience,” says Harman.

For those who haven't been lucky enough to see the Drury Lane version, Harman reminds ticket-buyers that they will recognise the story and the characters and, just like the film, adults can also rely on the humour, a little risqué in places, delivered with a wink of the eye.

"It’s a family show at its heart, and suitable for everyone, children from eight to 80, so bring your kids or a date,” he adds.

Bill Damaschke, president of Dreamworks Theatricals, says that Shrek stood out as a candidate for transformation to the stage after

award-winning British director Sam Mendes (co-founder of Neal Street Productions which created TV's Call The Midwife) told him: “You have something right in your midst. Shrek is a fantastic story. It has a great anti-hero, a princess who is waiting to fall in love, fantastic humour. It’s an epic journey but it has a big heart. You have all the ingredients – you should really consider turning it into a musical.”

Shrek broke the fairytale mode by having Princess Fiona coming out and singing her "I want my prince" song, but blowing up a bird in the process. "The twist Shrek brought was that things don’t always go the way it says they should in the book. It’s much copied now. People call it The Shrek Effect," says Damaschke.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, boss of DreamWorks Animation, explains what he told others about investing in the stage performance: “If we’re going to do this show, give it a reason to be theatrical. We don’t need to do this if we are just going to put the movie on stage. Give people something new and different that they didn’t get from the films.”

In the movie, the audience has the close-up that lets them peek into characters. In the musical, it’s the song.

Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) found they had a few problems to solve in the creative process asking: "How did Shrek get to the swamp? What was Princess Fiona doing in that tower all those years? How does that dragon feel about being a big-boned girl, babysitting a princess when no one ever comes to see her?

Once they'd resolved these challenges and added the songs and plot to Tim Hatley’s clever design – combining theatricality, puppetry and pageantry – the producers were sure the storybook could comealive on stage.

"We worried what would happen on that very first performance when Shrek walks out. Would people say: 'That’s not my Shrek'? How would they get over that? The truth is they were totally comfortable with him. Shrek has to look like Shrek; Fiona has to look like Fiona. But it’s the spirit of the character that matters most. Whoever plays Donkey has to have that same energy, always in Shrek’s face, just unabashedly there to be his friend. If you believe in the person playing him, even if they’re not exactly like Eddie Murphy, you’ll get on board from that first scene," says Katzenberg.

"There is definitely a thrill to live theatre that film doesn’t quite match in the same way. Animation is so controlled. You’re planning, planning, planning down to a single frame. There is no room for error. In the best live theatre, the mistakes you make along the way become your happy accidents and lead to really surprising and interesting notes," he adds.

Shrek The Musical started out in Seattle and then Broadway in 2008 and ran for 444 performances until the producers followed up the massive UK response to the animated film.

Caro Newling of Neal Street Productions says: "A lot of the humour of the first Shrek is very British: pun, satire, that subtle updating of the fairytale. There’s a darkness to it, but also lots of self-deprecation and a big heart.”

"The Muffin Man must be happy... and it was one of the running jokes with the original Shrek team, that if we ended up in London, we’d be on Drury Lane. It really was a dream come true.”

  • Shrek the Musical, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Wednesday, March 11 to Sunday, March 29. Box Office: 0844-811-2121


Named the “King of Cartoons” by Newsweek, William Steig remainsThe New Yorker’s longest-running contributor, with more than 1,600 drawings and 117 covers to his name. He began writing and illustrating books for children at the age of 60. His work Sylvester and the Magic Pebble earned him the Caldecott Medal, the highest honor bestowed on children’s picture books, but it was the 1990 fairy tale Shrek! that ultimately brought him his largest audience by inspiring one of the most successful film franchises in motion picture history.

William Steig wrote and illustrated children’s books up until the last year of his life and died in 2003 at the age of 95.