Shrek The Musical

Neil Cooper

NIGEL Harman wasn't someone theatre audiences might immediately see as being right to appear in Shrek The Musical, composer Jeanine Tesori and writer David Linday-Abaire's stage version of the 2001 animated feature film, which in its relatively short life has become a modern classic. Here, after all, was an actor who had become a household name from his role as Dennis Rickman in TV soap EastEnders a decade before, and whose initial shift into stage musicals saw him take on similarly swaggering roles such as hard-boiled gambler Sky Masterson in a West End production of Guys and Dolls.

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Harman's turn as Shrek's arch villain, the comically diminutive Lord Farquaad, not only caused the actor appear on his knees throughout the show, but saw him win an Olivier award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical. Such was Harman's affinity with the show that in 2014 he was invited to direct Shrek's UK tour. This is a role he continues as the latest leg of the tour opens tonight for a four-week festive run in Edinburgh.

“It's a big beast of a musical,” says Harman, on a break from running through the show's first half. “Quite literally, in fact, given that we've got this thirty-five foot dragon sitting in the back of a rehearsal room. Fifteen new people have just joined the show, and that keeps things fresh, but there are some people who've been working on it for a decade. I've been on it seven years, both as an actor and a director, and I still get excited by it. Best of all, it still makes me laugh.

“I think the music's extraordinary, and I know the songs off by heart, but every time we do them it's different. There's things in it we've never done before, and a new take on an old song, so we're always working on it to make it even better. But the story's fantastic. It's about these two people – Shrek and Princess Fiona – falling in love, and not being in love with this idea of image. It's about being true to yourself, and falling in love with someone for who they are.”

This is something Laura Main similarly recognises as she takes on the role of Princess Fiona, who, despite initially giving the impression of being the archetypal doe-eyed heroine of cartoon fairy-tale fiction, proves to have a wild side she is unable to control.

“She's not your average princess,” says Main of her character. “she's very rowdy and feisty, especially when the sun comes down. She has a pretence of being an ordinary princess sometimes, but then she drops her guard and her true self comes out.”

Like Harman, Main may have come to prominence on television, but is no stranger to musical theatre. For the last five years, Aberdeen-born Main has been a mainstay of Call the Midwife, the 1950s set drama about a group of midwives in the East End of London. Main plays nun Sister Bernadette, who over the course of the programme's run ditches her habit to become nursing sister Shelagh Turner. Main's transformation may not be as drastic as the one she undergoes in Shrek, but both allow Main to explore different aspects of her acting prowess.

“I grew up doing load of musicals,” she says, “and I thought that's what I'd end up doing, but I went to a straight drama school, and up until now, at least, I've ended up going down a slightly different path.”

Main's first taste of celebrity came aged 14 when she played the title role in a youth theatre production of Annie at Aberdeen Arts Centre. A year later she appeared in The Sound of Music, and while studying art history at Aberdeen University appeared in a series of student shows at His Majesty's Theatre in the city. With Shrek set to tour to His Majesty's in February next year, it looks set to be quite a homecoming for Main.

“I look back on that time as a major highlight of my time in Aberdeen,” she says. “I was taken to see my first student show at His Majesty's when I was 11, and I turned to my mum and said I wanted to go to Aberdeen University so I could be in shows like it. When I did end up doing that, it was quite intense. We would rehearse in the Easter holidays from ten in the morning till ten at night. The shows would sell out, and we would give all the money to local charities. Going back to His Majesty's is really special, especially with a show like Shrek. All the people from the old days are coming to see it, which is really scary.”

Main was a fan of both the film and stage show of Shrek before she was cast in it.

“Since then I've always dreamt of doing it,” she says.

While Shrek's love interests are key to the show, Harman clearly had a hoot playing Lord Farquaad.

“He's a huge ego in this tiny body,” Harman says of the character. “It's a unique part, which I'd heard about when it was on Broadway, and it's very physically demanding, but that allows each actor to bring their own individual interpretation of him. The new guy who's doing it, Samuel Holmes, he's just making me howl with laughter.”

This is clearly a bonus for someone who has played the part, and has clearly helped Harman rise to the occasion of overseeing the show in its entirety.

“I was moving into that area anyway,” he says. “I'd wanted to direct for years, and was developing another project, but then then the producers asked me to do the tour of Shrek after we did it in the West End, and I jumped at the chance.”

While the other project Harman was developing never saw the light of day, he has gone on to direct Lunch and The Bow of Ulysses, a double bill of plays by Steven Berkoff, while onstage this year he appeared in the French comedy What's in a Name? at Birmingham Rep. Beyond his latest stint on Shrek, Harman is continuing his love of musical theatre, and his production of Big Fish the Musical starring Frasier's Kelsey Grammer is currently running in London. Harman is also developing a new musical which should see the light of day in 2019.

Main, meanwhile, will be dividing her time as Princess Fiona with filming the next series of Call the Midwife.

“When I tell people I'm doing Shrek, their faces light up,” she says. “People seem to love the show in the same way they care about Call the Midwife, so to go from that to something that people feel equally strong about is really lovely. Shrek is a show with some great messages. It's about being true to yourself, and remaining an individual no matter what.”

Harman concurs.

“At it's heart, it's a love story between two dysfunctional people, but it's also very funny,” he says. “That's the show's secret weapon, and that's why people love it.”

Shrek The Musical, Edinburgh Playhouse, December 12-January 7 2018; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, February 28-March 11 2018.

www.shrekthemusical.com