The Tricky Marriage of Stage and Screen: Reviewing ‘Shrek the Musical’


Cara Doherty (she/her) reviews the UK tour of ‘Shrek the Musical’s’ stint at the Grand Opera House York and reflects on film to stage adaptations

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Image by Cara Doherty

By Cara Doherty

Settling down in the beautiful Grand Opera House, York, amongst a packed audience of excited families, I didn’t know what to expect from the touring production of Shrek the Musical. I have distinct memories of being so scared of the film as a child that I hid in the school toilets for most of its run, slightly ruining the usual excitement of a rained-off playtime. While I didn’t expect to be quite so terrified, I was fearful of how effectively such a well-known film would adapt to a very different medium.

The story is similar to what lovers of the film would expect – a closed-off and grumbling Shrek saves Princess Fiona from her dragon-guarded castle on the orders of Lord Farquaad, but when the prickly ogre starts to develop feelings he’s never known before, chaos ensues. All along, his trusty sidekick Donkey provides equal measures of comedic relief and endless heart.

Philip Witcombe’s costume design and Ashley McIntosh’s hair, makeup and wigs team must first be applauded – these well-known characters feel dropped out of the cinema screen, with particular mentions necessary for Donkey’s fantastic fursuit and Pinocchio’s almost eerily realistic wooden arms and legs.

Talking of Donkey, Brandon Lee Sears’ portrayal of this loveable goof left nothing to be desired and was paired with buttery smooth vocals. Overall, the vocal performances were one of the highlights of the production – I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, by Strictly Come Dancing star Joanne Clifton’s ability to hold her own among a principal cast of theatre veterans as the spirited leading lady Princess Fiona.

Notably, however, high praise must be delivered to the show’s clear star Cherece Richards who took on the role of the Dragon. She brought not only effortless skill to the vocally challenging ‘Forever’, but an intimidating stage presence that had the audience in awe. This song was a standout of the show for me, as it was also one of the many opportunities that the ensemble cast got to shine with dynamic choreography courtesy of Nick Winston, who also co-directed the production. This ensemble was another definite success of the show – while a few of the dance numbers could have benefited from some tightening up in sections, their skill allowed both the complex choreography and harmonies to support the production beautifully.

Catering directly to lovers of the film at the end of the production, the interactive rendition of ‘I’m A Believer’ raised the roof off the Grand Opera House on a cold, wintery night. And while I left the theatre rosy-cheeked and as excited as the streams of young children, I found myself wishing for more. Remarking that “It put me in the mood to see some theatre!”, I found myself at the heart of what I perceive as the one drawback of the production – it appeared a touch too cinematic. I think the set design is primarily responsible for this, as it relies heavily on projecting sets and transitions onto a screen rather than making use of the depth and realism that theatrical set pieces can offer.

I entered excited for the familiar magic of theatre and instead experienced magic, yes, but that of an almost-film. While I recognise that a touring production creates certain challenges with sets in particular in terms of transportation and adaptation to a range of stage dimensions, I felt the production was ultimately slightly disjointed. It was a wonky marriage of stage and screen: beautiful intricate costume design versus simple projections of a castle or nuanced performances stifled by an occasionally stilted script due to its grounding in cinematic roots.

In spite of this, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Shrek’s swamp. Overall, and as proven by its numerous revivals across the UK and US, this is a very successful screen to stage adaptation. Conceptually, I am far from against such adaptations as a whole. I shamelessly adore Heathers the Musical, am desperate to see Moulin Rouge on the West End and not-so-secretly believe that the musical adaptation of Legally Blonde is better than the film. But these adaptations work precisely because they aren’t shy about what they are – musicals. While these stories might have begun in film form, they now appeal to a different kind of audience. Trying to retain enough of the film in order to entice its fans as well as adapting to both the confines and opportunities that the stage offers is undoubtedly a fine line to walk, and Shrek the Musical does this – just.

Editor's note: This production ran at the Grand Opera House York from 27 November to 2 December 2023. The production continues to tour the UK until August 2024.