Express & Star

Song and dance with loveable ogre Shrek

Shrek is heading to the West Midlands. The anti-social, life-sized green ogre will be duelling with the dwarfish Lord Farquaad of Duloc, after he exiles a vast number of fairy-tale creatures to Shrek’s beloved swamp. With his solitude undone, and Shrek’s demands that the creatures be moved elsewhere, he reluctantly teams up with a talkative Donkey who tags along and guides him to Duloc.

The cast of Shrek the Musical UK and Ireland Tour. Photo: Hugo Glenndinning

The show will be one of the biggest to arrive in the region next year, with a week-long run planned at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre from April 9 to 14.

It will star Strictly Come Dancing star Joanne Clifton, The Lion King star Anthony Lawrence, and Olivier Award-nominee James Gillan, best known for Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.

Clifton is a class act who was a professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing from 2014 to 2016, winning the Christmas Special in 2015 with Harry Judd who was series 9 champion and the fourteenth series in 2016 with Ore Oduba. She played the title role of Millie Dillmount in the UK tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2017 then starred as the lead role of Janet Weiss in the UK tour of The Rocky Horror Show. In 2021, she starred as Morticia Addams in the 2nd UK Tour of The Addams Family.

We caught up with the principle cast to get the gossip and find out what makes Shrek one of the nation’s favourite films and shows.

Joanne Clifton

Were you a fan of the original Shrek movie?

I just loved it! And then I went to see the musical on one of the previous tours and loved that.

Joanne Clifton

What was the audition like?

I wanted it so much that I went into the audition and I didn’t let anybody speak! There was the director who I already had worked with before, Nick Winston, there was the casting director, the musical director and the producer. Now I hadn’t met these other people but I didn’t let them speak! I sat at the table and said, ‘Right, this is why I need this job: 1) Sutton Foster played Princess Fiona on Broadway and she’s my idol; 2) I have auditioned for it before and didn’t get it and I’m a very competitive person; and 3) if ever there was a princess in any film or fable, the one I would relate to most is Princess Fiona’. I said, ‘Without sounding too full of myself, I am a world champion ballroom dancer, meaning long dresses with feathers, looking all elegant like a princess. But here’s the thing: I’m from Grimsby, I find trumping really funny. This is why I relate to Princess Fiona.’

Where were you when you found out you’d got the part?

I have my own segment on BBC Two, It Takes Two, which is a spin-off of Strictly. I was there and I was getting my make-up done and the email came through, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ And then I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone because it was all under wraps.

How have you researched the role of Princess Fiona?

I’ve watched the film and have been listening to Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona on the soundtrack and watching clips of different actors doing the role on stage. But I’m stopping doing that now so I’m able to create my own take on it.

How are you feeling about being transformed into an ogre in the show?

I had my fitting for Fiona’s ogre body and hands and I’ve had to cut my nails short because my long ones won’t work for the quick change into my ogre suit.

People who know you from Strictly may not realise that you’re also an accomplished musical theatre actor – how do the two disciplines compare?

I have a really strong work ethic from my time in ballroom dancing. I absolutely hate having a night off sick – I have to be on death’s door to go off sick.

What I love about the musical theatre world, which is different from my dancing world, is that nobody is bigger than the show. Coming away from the stress and the pressure of competing in the ballroom world is so refreshing for me.

It’s teamwork in a musical: we’ve all got our separate roles and of course we want the lead ones, but even if you’re not a lead, you’re just as important because the show is the main goal. And it just makes me happy! I love that we have to go on and do the show to an audience of however many people and if anything goes wrong, we have to carry on. I love the adrenaline of that.

What do you do to relax when touring?

I love escape rooms so I’m going to get a Shrek team together and get t-shirts made. I want us to get on the leader board at escape rooms in every place on the tour.

Antony Lawrence

Were you a fan of the original Shrek movie?

I loved it. It’s a revolutionary film because it was so risqué with its comedy. It was something you hadn’t seen before: this character who’s farting and burping. We had the VHS and my sister and I would watch it all the time.

Shrek The Musical Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre from April 9 to 14.

What attracted you the role of Shrek?

Shrek the Musical was the very first show I saw on Broadway. We went to New York for my sister’s 18th birthday and because we loved Shrek so much as a film we went to see the musical. I remember being so excited when it was coming over to London. I was at drama school at the time and remember thinking, gosh, I’d love to play this role. Shrek’s song ‘Who I’d Be’ is one I’ve used at so many auditions.

It’s so clichéd to say that it’s a dream role but it really is. I’m a character actor. I love complex characters that go on a big journey and Shrek is very much like that. I really relate to the story of Shrek personally – I connected so much with ‘Who I’d Be’ because it’s Shrek saying, in a dream world, who would you be? And personally, I’d jump at the chance to change myself, I think most actors would. I feel like me and Shrek are on the same path of not feeling like the best looking or most popular person in the room. It’s the lack of confidence of not feeling good enough just as you are. I almost need Shrek to be a life lesson to myself.

What is the message of Shrek the Musical?

The story of Shrek is about not needing to change who you are to fit in in the world, you just need to be yourself. It’s an age old human story – even though we’re seeing a green ogre and a donkey and all these fairytale creatures – there’s so much in there that people can connect to. Children will see the show and see the magic of these characters, then as adults you see the undertones of everything.

How was the audition?

I knew ‘Who I’d Be’ very well but I didn’t know the other songs. I never like to copy other actors’ performances because otherwise you’re just a mimic so I presented my own take on it. I really wanted to show that vulnerable side of the character, and they liked that.

Where were you when you found out you’d got the part?

My girlfriend and I were out for lunch and there was no signal where we were. I’d put the audition out of my mind then when we left the café I saw a missed call from my agent’s personal mobile number. I called him back from the car and was just speechless with him on speaker phone.

Do costumes help you get into a new character?

During the rehearsals I’ll want to be in the costume where possible, because it completely changes the physicality. It’s not just Antony, because you’re suddenly most bigger. Every time I’ve had the costume on I figure out new ways to be in it, thinking about Shrek would stand, which is completely different to me. You need the framework of the costume during the rehearsal period. As much as I can have on as early as possible will be a huge help.

What effect do all the prosthetics play on maintaining that all-important emotional connection with the audience?

It is going to be a real challenge. I previously did the Lion King where I had a full face of make-up and I had to spend a lot of time in the mirror to work out how moving my face affected the appearance of that make-up. It’ll be very much the same with this – when I’ve had all the prosthetics on I’ve looked at myself and considered how I’ll make myself look friendly or happy or scared or worried. So much of it is going to probably come through the voice.

You recently played Scar in the international tour of The Lion King – do you prefer playing goodies or baddies?

I really like playing villains because they get all the best lines, but it’ll make a lovely change to play the hero for once, and such a lovable guy who just wants to express his real self to someone and be loved.

Shrek has a bromance as well as a romance. Will you enjoy your double act with Donkey?

Completely. Brandon and I have got a good vibe going and he makes me laugh a lot. There’s a song we do together, a travelling song, and just the thought of him making all these little interjections, it’s going to be so hard not to laugh, knowing how funny he’s going to be.

James Gillan

Were you a fan of the original Shrek movie?

I loved the movie. I thought it was very funny, very fresh.

Did you ever imagine you’d be doing Shrek the Musical?

When you say you’re in Shrek, everyone goes, ‘Oh my god, amazing!”

James Gillan

What attracted you the role of Lord Farquaad?

I picked up the script and instantly thought, ‘Oh, this is fun!’ I feel like I got Lord Farquaad quite quickly. It’s nice to play someone who goes hot and cold, a bit of a manic villain.

What was the audition like?

For my second and final audition, I popped out from my little skincare job that I do (we actors all have other jobs; very few of us just act). It was very chilled, and the team were very kind. I know Sam Holmes, who’s co-directing the show with co-director and choreographer Nick Winston and he was his usual funny self and put me at ease. So it was nice.

Where were you when you found out you’d got the part?

I was sitting having a cosmopolitan at home with my partner. So it was glass in hand all ready!

How does it feel to be stepping into such a well-loved show?

There’s always an element of pressure but it’s usually unfounded. You put this pressure on yourself really. You can second guess yourself a lot and it doesn’t get any easier as you get older. When I was younger, I think I had a bit of a thicker skin really. You just have to trust your instincts.

How will you make the role your own?

I’ve always said about the way I perform that I’m 90 per cent myself and 10 per cent costume and direction. Of course there’s accent and stuff like that as well: the costume will do a hell of a lot of work and the script is really funny. But unless you’re really reacting as you would react, I think it lacks a bit of honesty. So if you think, how would I react in this situation, then you’re usually spot on. All actors have to bring themselves – without that essence of knowing who you are then you can’t really move forward with honesty with a character.

What is the message of Shrek the Musical?

It’s about how it doesn’t really matter what you look like because it’s about who you are inside. There was that same message in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie too, in fact.

You can see that Lord Farquaad is a product of what’s happened to him as a child: he feels abandoned by his father, and his mother fell off 20 mattresses and killed herself. So he’s a bit damaged. I feel a bit sorry for him. But most villains you really should, shouldn’t you?

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