Bloody heck, he looks exactly like Shrek


Dean Chisnall as Shrek and Faye Brookes as Princess Fiona. Photograph: Helen Maybanks

Tons of green make-up, nose glue and mechanical legs: Shrek the Musical pays close attention to detail, and is one of the few London shows that hasn’t been scaled down for the road

Wandering around backstage at Shrek the Musical in Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, you encounter disembodied green ogre heads and hands at every turn. A wig team is working on perfecting the show’s 150 hairpieces, and each incredibly intricate costume for the 110 characters in the production is heavier and more detailed than the last. The show spends thousands of pounds every month on silicon prosthetics that feel so real you would question if they were prosthetics at all. There is no scrimping on detail when it comes to Shrek.

Dean Chisnall, who plays the lead green ogre, is about to head into make-up, two hours ahead of everyone else. On days with two shows, his make-up and Shrek cowl stay on for 11 hours, and eating is a struggle. The most expensive piece of kit in the show isn’t the large dragon that sits in a lonely corner behind the stage, Princess Fiona’s beautiful wedding dress or Lord Farquaad’s fantastic mechanical legs, but Donkey’s costume, which has been hand-knotted to appear exactly like fur.

Extraordinary detail

This level of extraordinary detail may be commonplace in the West End, but it’s less so for a show on the road, according to Chisnall. “The detail of the show is everything. It’s very rare you get a London production going on tour that’s not been scaled down, and we’re very lucky that ours hasn’t at all.”

His commitment to the make-up process has been something of an ongoing battle, especially during the summer heatwave. “It gets tiring, but it doesn’t get boring,” he says. “There has never been a London production in the history of musical theatre that has been this extensive, certainly with the make-up. Phantom of The Opera was the biggest before, but this is far bigger.”

With such a well-known and well-loved story, there’s a certain pressure to recreate the magic of the film, particularly for kids, according to Faye Brookes, who plays Princess Fiona. “There’s a responsibility, because it’s a story that everyone is familiar with or has heard of. With all the children there, you have a responsibility to tell that story from its original. We tell it as if it has never been told before.”

This responsibility particularly weighed on Idriss Kargbo, Donkey in the musical, in terms of living up to Eddie Murphy’s version of the character from the film. “It has been a lot of pressure,” says Kargbo. “But I feel that as an actor, so long as you throw all of yourself into it, it won’t completely get in the way of your work. Obviously it’s always underlying, and Eddie Murphy has made this incredible character so famous, but I think I’ve always put it at the back of my mind.”

Bigger role for Farquaad

Gerard Casey, who plays Lord Farquaad, had an easier time in this respect, as his role in the musical is far bigger than in the film. “The character Lord Farquaad in the musical has been rethought and recreated completely. It’s a fantastic bit of writing. He was played by the brilliant John Lithgow in the movie, but actually the part of Lord Farquaad in the movie is quite small. I didn’t have any pressure like that because it’s been rethought in a really clever way,” he says.

Chisnall, however, is quick to emphasise that the musical sticks pretty closely to the story. “Obviously it’s been adapted to become a musical – that goes without saying. But there is the essence of the original story on stage, with not really many changes, to be honest.”

It’s the spirit of the film people love, and that’s what they’ve tried to reproduce on stage, according to Chisnall. “It’s the heart and soul of the movie most of us know,” he says. “Some people don’t know the story when they come and see it. Then they see it and think, wow, it’s got lots of inner messages, and all the rest of it. It’s such a charming piece.”

The underlying message is what makes the show for Casey.

“I think the lovely thing about this piece, and Nigel [Harman, tour director] talked about it a lot in rehearsals, is that it’s all about duality. Everybody has a different side to them – it’s all about being accepted. My character is a narcissistic sociopath who has his eye on the prize and wants to be king, but he actually loves a bit of musical theatre and is quite damaged. All these characters have layers.”

Refusal to judge people

It’s not all morals, however. What Chisnall admires most about Shrek is his refusal to judge people on their image, but what he loves most about the show is how that’s interwoven into what is a really fun production. “We get to see that side of things and it’s got all those sorts of messages throughout the show, but that’s as well as being very funny and very colourful.”

While Brookes sometimes questions her role as she picks leftover glue from her nose the morning after a show, it’s worth it, she says, to see the children belly laughing in the audience.

The haphazardly applied nose glue is essential for her 90-second transformations from Princess Fiona to ogre. It’s a transformation I’m warned not to hang around backstage for, for fear of being trampled by a flurry of people with green markers.

Shrek the Musical runs from Oct 21 to Nov 9 at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. Tickets from €20.

Originally published in the Irish Times on October 17th 2014.


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