Cardiff’s number one amateur company are back in the New Theatre for half term with Shrek: The Musical to take you on a magical fairytale adventure. The show, based on the Oscar-winning DreamWorks film of the same name, follows the ogre Shrek on a quest to get his swamp, and the peace and quiet that comes with it, back from the fairy tale creatures dumped there by Lord Farquaad. Instead he ends up on a quest to rescue Princess Fiona accompanied by a talking Donkey to unravel the truth.
Originally opening on Broadway, after a trail run in Seattle, in 2008 the show was re-worked for a West End production which opened in 2011. The Broadway production was filmed and released on DVD capturing the amazing original cast including Brian D’arcy James, Sutton Foster and Daniel Breaker which, in my opinion, captures the best form of this production professionally. In the UK, after the West End run, the show has toured at least twice which I managed to catch twice in four years at the Bristol Hippodrome, however, the most recent tour changed particular aspects significantly and I didn’t feel that it truly captured just how good the production could be. Due to my history with the show I was incredibly excited to see the interpretation of this production from Orbit Theatre especially in their 50th year.
Matt Preece leads the cast as the titular ogre Shrek. When I see lead the cast I mean it more literally than I would in other cases. Shrek is often the initiator for a large part of the comedic exchanges, he gets a lot of the punch lines and it is the fluctuation of his emotions which are at the heart of the show. Preece’s voice takes this leading quality to another level as its power instantly fills the whole auditorium. In terms of acting quality I was also happy to see that, in contrast to some choices made in the most recent UK Tour of the production, Preece’s Shrek was certainly an angry and bitter one during the show’s first act. However, through some touching moments with Donkey and the touching second act numbers the layers eventually reveal the heart of the character, but Preece ensures the sarcasm remains.
I was also happy to see that ‘Build a Wall’ remained in the production after its removal from the most recent UK tour. I believe this removal is often a shame for this production as it is not only a magnificent song individually but also highlights that Shrek can be angry and hurt half way through act two but still retain the character development up to this point to put it into effect afterwards. In this production the majority of lyrics were altered for the first half of the song and the result was simply strange. They were quiet statement-like and stilted the flow of the song. This was a shame as when the song shifted into the original lyrics for the second half the flow was restored and Preece’s voice audibly adjusted to them and they simply let the high standard of his voice be heard.
Lizzie Burgess and Mat Hole give stand out performances as Princess Fiona and Donkey respectively. All three leads are given songs which could easily qualify as vocal gymnastics during this show, but Fiona often needs to make her songs impact the audience the most during the second half of ‘I Know It’s Today’ and ‘This is How a Dream Comes True’. Burgess ensures that you know her Fiona is here and that she knows her own mind as soon as she begins to speak, let alone sing. She perfectly encapsulates the quick comedic switches between sweetness and sarcasm, but does not give a middle ground between the two. However, when in a cast of other larger than life acting portrays this finds perfect home. Hole in this role could pass for the reincarnation of Daniel Breaker in the best way possible. He brought his own excitement and inflections to the role but perfectly captured what makes Donkey such a fun and difficult performance to undertake. Due to the removal of the magic mirror in this production, Hole is also given the, newly hilarious, echoing ‘seven years old’ line introducing ‘I Know It’s Today’.
Now a special highlight must go to the wonderful Jenny Brock as the voice of Dragon (and also Mama Bear). Her voice is absolutely incredible and, had she not appeared, looking incredible in her Dragon dress, during the bows and ‘I’m a Believer’, I would have believed I was listening to the Broadway or West End cast recordings as she was that good and simply fitted the role perfectly. I was also incredibly impressed by the standard of the Dragon puppet knowing that this is an amateur company working with it.
Lewis Cook’s portrayal of Lord Farquaad is also very well-done. Cook is incredibly comedic with the voice to uplift it and he even knows how to handle the trails which can come with live theatre whilst remaining in the character and finding the comedy in the moment. However, I think the costume could have been altered to give him more mobility, as I believe there is a wrap around both of his legs rather than each leg individually, and this could have aided during the moments of both comedic movement and even during those scenes where he does not have a vast amount of movement. Dan Ivor Jones also must be mentioned for his skill in remaining true to the high nature of Pinocchio’s voice and he absolutely nailed his high notes.
The individual set pieces and constructed backdrops surrounding the cast are also very impressive in terms of their detail and construction. However, there are aspects of the set and lighting design which I feel detracted from not only the experience seeing the show but also from the opportunities to fully appreciate the craftsmanship in constructing the other set pieces. Primarily, these included the often unusual timings of gauze drops over particular pieces of set and at some points the cast. From my seat, when many of these gauzes came down they seemed opaque and blocked the view of what was behind them. This may have been different from other seats in the theatre as I was not in a central seat, however, these gauzes were combined with projections. In my experience, the use of projection in theatrical productions is often hit or miss. Unfortunately, in this production many of the projections simply confused me as they did not necessarily add to the set whereas they were covering an intricately constructed and detailed piece of set. Some of the lighting choices also seemed a little confusing. Primarily the use of small but quick white flashing lights during the bows was particularly distracting from seeing the cast and it continued through to the beginning of ‘I’m a Believer’.
I also feel that my experience with the audience also requires a mention. I understand that each audience experience is relatively unique to that night and I did attend on their opening night. Along with this being their opening night there were occasional sound issues in terms of microphones which were understandable and ultimately would not have majorly detracted from major performances or moments. However, the issue came when the audience became incredibly distracting. This is a show marketed towards families and its setting in half terms adds to this, but children may sometimes be talkative in the theatre. The issues last night, however, were not from the children in the audience who were actually all relatively well behaved. It was the adults. Throughout the whole show there were photos being taken both with and without flash, the constant loud rustling of plastic bags in search of picnic levels of food, which in one case lasted for the entirety of both a song and piece of dialogue, and a group who, after coming in during the opening number, proceeded to discuss their seats, check their phones, and discuss their weekend plans during the show. I wanted to highlight this to give awareness to the amazing ushers who tried their best to catch everything within their abilities.
Overall, this production easily shows of the talents of those who contribute their time to Orbit Theatre. Go and see this production to support the cast whose voices and interpretations do justice to the beautiful score of this show. While it does have some moments of set frustration and the audience may be distracting, these things can’t distract from the visible work which has gone into these portrayals. If you’re looking for a half term treat this is where you’re going to find it in Cardiff! Shrek: The Musical is running at Cardiff’s New Theatre until Saturday the 2nd of June.