Review: Shrek, on tour, Bristol Hippodrome

William Steig’s picture-book cartoon character, Shrek!, shot to fame in the 2001 DreamWorks animated film and reserved his iconic place in family-favourite history. Boasting a larger than life cast of characters, including a zealous talking donkey and subversive princess, the colourful story was a super selection for musical conversion in 2008.

Click photo to see the Shrek trailer

Ten years on, the musical is touring the UK. It was a shame to see such a sparse audience at the Bristol Hippodrome. No doubt it’s a demoralising challenge when the energy of a production is zapped by an empty auditorium in such a large space. And yet there are several huge performances deserving praise.

Steffan Harri greens-up to play the lovable stink with wry humour and a bouncy step. He is well-matched by his furry friend, Donkey, played by Marcus Ayton, who oozes with cheek and sass. It’s great to hear many of the classic lines from the film, which is rife with layers – like onions, like ogres, in fact – but, at times, the writing seems to hold these characters back and there are some poorly managed, purposeless entrances and exits that left the performances a little ropey around the edges. Part of this is to do with the simplistic set design, pared down for the tour. Although effective and usable, it doesn’t wow like other big musicals on tour and some of the stripped-back stand-in features mean that the fairytale magic is lost.

The pantomime villain is always a gift of a role and Samuel Holmes stands up (ahem!) to the demands of Lord Farquaad’s ‘small’ part. His appearances keep the audience tittering at his comical lines and brilliantly funny attempts to cross the stage at speed on his tiny legs -a gimmick that never seems to get old.

Unfortunately, reality TV star, Amelia Lily is the one who falls short as Princess Fiona. Her vocal talents are well showcased but not matched in her dancing or acting ability, clarity and precision being the main concerns. She is overtaken by some excellent work from the saving-grace Ensemble though and it’s this super bunch whose appearances make the show.

This is a fantastic show for the Ensemble who each assume their own supporting role in the brigade of misfit fairytale creatures, cast by physically and psychologically dwarfed Lord Farquaad into the squalor of Shrek’s swamp, due to their oddities. Tim Haley impresses here with super costumes for all the proudly freaky fairytale creatures, each charmingly unique and full of style. The Ensemble do a credible job with their many costume (and shoe and hair and make-up) changes to also play villagers, guards, tapping rats, blind mice and the cutesy chorus line of Dulocians. (There are some super time-lapse videos of these quick changes on the twitter feed). Their appearances are punctuated with Josh Prince’s choreographic arrangements, under Hugh Vanstone’s fun, colourful and engaging lighting design, bringing the ‘Big, Bright, Beautiful World’ to life.

Among them, Lucinda Shaw’s vocals – behind Tim Haley’s four-man dragon puppet – are on fire. And tiny Jemma Revell also packs an awesome punch flipping between the dainty Sugar Plum Fairy and the hearty belt of the adorably silly Gingerbread man. Jennifer Tierney, as Mama Bear, is another vocalist to note, while her fun-loving on stage husband, Kevin Yates, entertains with some groovy dad-dance moves.

The music has some real highlights with winning references to a host of other shows to satisfy musical geeks in the audience: the Les-Mis inspired ‘Freak Flag’ was a great ensemble number, as were the Duloc parodies of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line. ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ appealed to the masses for its primitive, coarse humour contrasting to the classic musical sing-off duets such as Annie Get Your Gun’sAnything You Can Do, (I Can Do Better)‘, a slightly less gaseous take on competitive flirting. It was a shame to see the wonderful trio version of ‘I Know It’s Today’ omitted in favour of interaction with tacky puppets. This was a great number in the original and exemplifies several cuts that haven’t seemed to benefit the revamped tour. But we left the theatre on a high after the keenly-awaited karaoke-swamp party finale, which drew the better half of the performance to a neat close.

This was a mixed bag of a musical, showcasing a number of hardworking and talented performers, but not quite living up to the original west end production.

Media sourced from https://shrekthemusical.co.uk

Review: Sardines, The Drayton Arms, London

You can tell when a person is having a conversation in their head because of the movement in their hands. Creative people are prone to gesticulating a great deal, even when thinking. I know because I do it too.

What other habits have you noticed when observing people on the tube? We all do it. Watch people. Have you ever leaned closer to read an article in someone else’s magazine? Or tried to see what book they are reading or what bit they’ve got to because you’ve read that book too? How about listening in on conversations? Perhaps the choice wasn’t yours because that public display of affection was a bit too in your face. Or that boastful description was a bit too loud and a bit T.M.I.

Rumble Theatre have clearly spent a lot of time commuting to prepare for their performance based in the underground ‘tin can’ observatory. Their recreation in the black box studio above the Drayton Arms offers the audience a prompt to look at the theatre in everyday life and see ourselves as both performer and audience on the public transport stage.

Jenna Kamal’s conversational montage dips in and out of interactions giving us the briefest snapshot of each character’s life as they pass us by. Some return like regular commuters and others are seen and gone almost unnoticed, as they would be in life. The dialogue is coupled with well choreographed staging from directors, Alice Wordsworth and Erin Blackmore, whose cast manipulate the three trucked tube seats of the set with thoughtful precision, shifting between episodes and characters as quickly as the journey between stations.

The pace is well maintained and the dialogue is delivered with humour in mind, although the actors could rein in for a more natural delivery where the comedy could speak for itself. Or perhaps that is just my claustrophobic-self speaking as I dread meeting some of these larger than life characters on the tube.

Moments of physical comedy add to the entertainment between scenes when the passengers find themselves in ever decreasing spaces, dealing with the unavoidable invasion of personal space in rush hour journeys. There are some wonderful facial expressions in these moments and the audience squirm with empathy; they’ve been there.

But Sardines is not simply an observational muse, entertaining the audience with the hilarity of situations they know and recognise. It also reaches out into the realm of ‘what if’ and we are asked to consider how we might react if someone stepped into our carriage ride and challenged convention. What if someone offered you a hug on your way to work? What if a stranger asked you a deep and personal question? What if we suspended the ‘don’t take sweets from strangers rule’ and accepted the offer of a piece of cake as just an act of kindness? ‘Would the world be a less lonely place as a result?asks Rumble.

In Sardines, the company present us with a host of questions to consider on our own journeys, prompting us to look beyond our sun-orbited little lives to consider the multi-dimensional thought processes of the seemingly inert stranger in the seat opposite or the sophisticated and together, girl-about-town who must be so careless and fancy-free that she has no worries in the world. Rumble even suggest (by the proxy of one character’s suggestion to another) that we “feel and not judge” our emotions. That is, recognising how we feel as a statement of fact and not wasting thought on how we should or could be feeling, fostering negative self-criticism. By giving ourselves more headspace, we could actually open our eyes to our fellow passengers. Or are we too nosey already?

Among the episodic, quirky encounters are little gems hinting at solutions to the battle of isolation that many feel in the densely packed underground carriages. Kamal’s characters offer riddles, debates, intimate and intellectual conversations. Is communal living the answer? poses one of the passengers.

The questions, like life, are left unresolved and although a through-line to the play might have boosted the structure, so much is packed into the hour that the audience have plenty to think as they depart the ride. If Rumble have done their job right, the audience will get talking about these thoughts and break down at least a little of the silence in the ranks. Or are we already victims of a world that has no privacy of thought? Are we, in fact, too consumed with sharing on our introverted social media platforms that we are left longing for real contact in the underground tunnels that deny us this faux world of connectivity? Or can we find contentment in the quiet solitude of a train journey away from the even faster pace of the world above ground? The questions go on…

Rumble is a fresh, fringe group from Exeter. Led by a talented creative team provoking thought through theatre, they are definitely one to watch out for.

Sardines runs until Saturday 7th July at The Drayton Arms Theatre.

Review: Miss Littlewood, RSC, Stratford

How apt that the culmination of the first day of the RSC’s Big Director’s weekend should end with a preview of Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman’s Miss Littlewood. And what a treat it was.

Performed on the beautifully intimate thrust at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford Upon Avon, where a mock platform slides back and forth from behind the pros arch to become the meta-stage for Littlewood’s story. The evening tiptoes down the path behind theatrical pioneer, Joan Littlewood, dabbling in the highlights of her working and personal life and drawing on autobiographical material, with a suitable touch of bias that is not permitted to go unnoticed.

The set is not lavish but deceptive in its seeming simplicity and put to good use through the incredible number of transitions that Whyman has wrestled into refinement. Whyman’s direction is thorough and impressive. The cast are kept busy and are endlessly resourceful. Actor-musicianship and multi-rolling are showcased with a superb sense of tongue-in-cheek, not least by the talented supporting cast including Amanda Hadingue, who takes on a number of male and female cameos, while adding musical accompaniment on her violin. There is more than a touch of Brechtian influence and an honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style. Having said this, the attention to authenticity in the time-appropriate costumes was a real credit to the Wardrobe department and I can’t begin to imagine how many shoes were used in this production, not least by the delightful Emily Johnstone in her ever-changing roles.

An honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style.

Littlewood is played by seven actresses in total. Each superb in their own right and supported by a small but well-versed ensemble company. True to Kenyon’s script note, the seven Joans ‘should be diverse in a number of ways – age, ethnicity, appearance, accent -and no one should be concerned about doing an impersonation’. Each assumes the role through the gestic application of a hat (‘a costume. Or a weapon.’) and delivers their character as directed by the real Joan (played by Claire Burt with tenacity, scrutiny and a naughty twinkle in her eye) who presents her life as she wants to see it, even attempting to avoid the moments she wants to forget. Each Joan represented a different era and was charmingly replaced with the same careless attitude that the real Miss Littlewood adopted in recasting her plays at the last moment. Their harmonious co-existence was a lesson in depth of character as each actress presented so much more than just one of the multi-facets of Joan and served to remind us that Joan Littlewood was a representative of the people, an anybody, with a desire for theatre to be seen by and represent every man and woman.

Kenyon, no doubt, had a battle selecting what to keep and lose from Littlewood’s dense biography. While some audience members felt aspects were missing, the teacher in me was delighted to see this inspirational figure immortalised in a production that reflected her own working style. A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

Although dubbed ‘a new musical’, I fear that musical theatre fans would be disappointed. The songs are poignant but not moving and some of the individual singing voices are full of character but not finesse. This is not a criticism – style over substance fits the bill here and, like the era-influenced dance routines, the audience can enjoy the lightness of touch rather than an over-choreographed showcase. Littlewood was a fabled communist after all: ‘Profligacy is in bad taste’, offers Joan 2, flirting with language.

My heart sang with gratitude as I smiled my way through so much of this utterly fun production. A lesson about a director and, indeed, a meta-lesson in directing itself. Whether it will extend to enchant beyond those in the industry is the question. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as Joan says to her first appointed actress ‘don’t like what you see? Do something better.’

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August 2018 at The Other Place, RSC, Stratford.