The joy of Shreks: Fat suits, fake ears and Amanda Holden"s embarrassing problem – behind the scenes at a monster musical
The joy of Shreks: Fat suits, fake ears and Amanda Holden”s embarrassing problem – behind the scenes at a monster musical
Last updated at 1:32 AM on 27th May 2011
Amanda Holden has gone a little Princess crazy. Every inch of her dressing room at London’s Theatre Royal in Drury Lane —where she plays Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical — is either pink, gold or fluffy.
A velvet chaise longue rests against one wall; there’s a rug on the floor that looks like pink grass, and even the fridge is covered in flowery wallpaper.
‘I got a friend who’s an interior designer in and told her I wanted it to look like a princess’s boudoir,’ says Amanda, while cackling in a less-than regal manner. ‘I’m rather proud of what I did with the fridge — it’s special stuff you can buy to cover your wheelie bin. I should be on Blue Peter, really.’
Ogre the top: Amanda Holden and Nigel Lindsay as Princess Fiona and Shrek
As Princess Fiona — who can challenge any ogre when it comes to belching and breaking wind — Amanda has found her perfect role.
While she comes over fairly well-mannered on Britain’s Got Talent, fellow judges Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan have often talked about her potty mouth.
‘I was made to be Fiona,’ says the 40-year-old actress about her first West End role for seven years. ‘Most princesses are very old-fashioned, rely on a man for everything, and are waiting for their happy ever after, but Fiona is feisty, funny, and gives as good as she gets.
‘I’m cheeky and saucy. I know that most people think that I’m posh — but really I’m not at all. Plus, I do have a bit of a flatulence problem because I’m a vegetarian.’
The actress won over the show’s producers when she turned up to the audition with a crash helmet, having hired a motorbike taxi to get her there quickly in between finishing Britain’s Got Talent and flying to Los Angeles, where she’s a correspondent for the CBS news channel.
‘I think they thought doing that was very Fiona,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t trying to give that impression, but it worked.’
Three auditions later, she had won the part. ‘I was in a hotel in Los Angeles watching Everton play when there was a knock at the door,’ she says.
‘I was pretty peeved that someone would disturb the game, but it was my agent. She had a bottle of champagne in her hand and Daniel Radcliffe— who she also represents — was behind her. She said I had got the partof Fiona, so we had a drink and a little party. It was very glamorous.’
Amanda,who suffered a miscarriage while seven months pregnant earlier this year, has credited Shrek with putting ‘a massive smile back on my face’,and it’s easy to see why.
Short: Nigel Harman as Lord Farquaad with Amanda Holden
The show, which started previews earlier this month, is a riot of good-natured fun and all the cast appear to be having the time of their lives. But that’s not to say it is easy for any of them.
Shrek is played by Nigel Lindsay, better known for his serious roles. For this part, he has to spend nearly two hours in make-up every night. He breaks the tedium by watching DVDs of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain.
But once he gets on stage, things are even worse due to his padded outfit, which is excruciatingly hot. An actor who played Shrek in the U.S. version of the show lost nearly three stone while doing the role.
‘It’s the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done, but I’m loving it,’ says the actor, whose dressing-room is nicknamed ‘the swamp’.
‘Part of it is just the response Shrek gets when I first appear on stage — there’s a big cheer and that is a really nice thing.
‘I’m trying to get the hang of dealing with the heat — wearing the costume is bloody hard work.
‘At one point I tried wearing an ice jacket, which is what they wear on oil rigs in the desert, but my heart started going like the clappers and I thought I might have a heart attack.
‘Now I have little pockets in my T-shirt that have ice discs in them. I’m on stage most of the time, but every time I come off into the wings the dressers unzip me to let the steam out and then they aim fans all over me to cool me down before I run back on again.’ It is not only Nigel who finds it unpleasant. Amanda says of having to kiss her hero; ‘It’s not the nicest experience. When we kiss I get drenched in sweat’.
Meanwhile, fellow cast member Nigel Harman, 37, who puts in a show-stealing performance as the diminutive baddie Lord Farquaad, spends the entire show acting on his knees.
‘I’m always attracted to roles that amuse me and this really did amuse me,’ says the actor who found fame on EastEnders as heart-throb Dennis Rickman. ‘But I didn’t know how I would do it. It would keep me awake at night.
‘I was thinking: “What have I done, signing up to do a show on my knees I must be nuts.” But so far I’m having an absolute ball.’
Nigel is hooked up to a contraption known as ‘the rig’ which has padding around the knee area and braces for his torso which manoeuvre his tiny fake legs.
‘The dance numbers are killer and I come off wheezing like an old man, but I love the camp element of Farquaad,’ he says.
Crowning glory: Amanda Holden tries on a tiara in the make-up room
‘I’m attached to the idea of a mad despot who wants to rule the world but who also loves musical theatre. He’s an incredibly narcissistic man who refuses to acknowledge that he is only 3ft tall.’
Shrek The Musical follows on from the blockbuster DreamWorks films about Shrek, a grumpy, smelly ogre, who is hiding a heart of gold. The musical focuses on the story from the first film (there are now three sequels) in which the hermit Shrek is forced to face the world when the evil Lord Farquaad exiles ‘freak’ fairy tale characters from his city and sends them to live in Shrek’s swamp.
Along the way he finds love with the fiery Princess Fiona — who is not all she seems — and friendship with a nice-but-dim donkey, who is played by former television presenter Richard Blackwood.
‘When I got this part, I was so happy I was levitating,’ says Richard. ‘Donkey reminds me of myself in many ways in that he likes to be liked. But it has still been a challenge playing him because Shrek is so horrible to him and he takes it. I wouldn’t do that.’
The show’s producers were so keen to have Richard, 39, on board that they put him through five months of singing lessons to prepare for the show.
The rest of the cast had three months of rehearsals, including singing and vocal coaching, while the complex set — which includes a castle, several giant books, and a bridge — was made in ten different workshops.
Some of the complex costumes, including Humpty Dumpty with his wall and the Three Bears, took three months to make. The show started life on Broadway, but is made by the British Neal Street Productions team headed by Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet’s estranged husband, in association with DreamWorks.
‘Sam has young children and was familiar with how popular the films are,’ says the show’s producer and Sam’s deputy, Caro Newling.
‘He thought the elements in the first story were fantastic and perfect for a musical; there is a love story, a moral about how beautiful isn’t always pretty, and a friendship between Shrek and Donkey. As he already had a relationship with DreamWorks through doing American Beauty and Road To Perdition [the two critically acclaimed films he directed for the company], doing a theatrical show with them was simply something waiting to happen.’
As well as looking at the films, the theatrical team went back to the first incarnation of Shrek, which started life as a book written by cartoonist William Steig. The name Shrek comes for the Yiddish word for fear.
As a result, the musical’s characters have far more depth than in the film: we learn why Shrek is such a misanthrope, what Fiona was doing in the tower, and all about Lord Farquaad’s unusual parentage.
All ears: Richard Blackwood being made up as Donkey, behind the scenes at Shrek The Musical
Caro says: ‘For the audience, there’s the pleasure of meeting characters they already know and love, and we are also giving them a back story and putting more meat on the bones through songs.’
The company spent 15 million on the Broadway production, but it received a tepid response from critics and lasted just a year, although it is still touring the U.S.
The British Shrek is a very different beast. It costs only 5 million to make and is more about character than theatrics.
‘With the Broadway production we overstuffed the cushion,’ says Caro. ‘We threw everything at it including the kitchen sink. It was full of wizardry. What we’ve done at Drury Lane is pare it down so that when the “ooh-ah” moments happen they really are exciting.’
These mainly come from Lola, the show’s 25ft dragon, and her 12ft flying counterpart. Laid out on the floor by the side of the stage between shows, she is unbelievably beautiful — a mesh of pink and purple loose fabric and foam covered with small jewels. Once she’s up and about, she’s not so pretty, as she breathes fire and snorts smoke.
Another wow factor are the costumes; all 294 of them are totally different.
There’s not enough space in the two wardrobe rooms for all of them; instead they are hung up in ‘wardrobe village’ — a specially created, huge library of clothes, wigs and shoes by the side of the stage.
‘There are four key moments in the show when this place is crazy,’ says producer James Triner of wardrobe village.
‘You can get the 16 members of the ensemble all having to get changed in less than two minutes.’
The wardrobe and wig departments are always busy. At present, wig supervisor Matt George is trying to work out how to keep Donkey’s ears on without having to use a chin strap, while his team are washing and drying the wigs from the previous night’s production — it’s not just Shrek who gets hot and sweaty.
Over in wardrobe, meanwhile, Humpty Dumpty’s egg really has cracked, and several foam ribs have started to stick out of one of the three little pigs.
‘We have weird things come up like how to hang Jack And The Beanstalk’s outfit — which has a huge beanstalk — while a lot of our time has been spent trying to make changing in and out of the outfits as easy as possible,’ says wardrobe manager Janie Stephenson.
Amanda has one change from Princess to ogre which has to be done in one minute and 14 seconds. She says: ‘I stand there in my bra and green knickers and have about three people working on me at the same time. There are hands everywhere.
‘Someone gets a Dulux roller and paints me green while someone else is putting my fat suit on.
‘So far, my prosthetic nose has never been straight and when I get on stage I’m normally seeing green because there is always make-up in my eye.’
Once the show is finished, it then takes more than an hour for Amanda to get the green make-up off, and even then she normally goes home with a jade tinge to her hair.
The preview shows have already had several standing ovations, but no one working on it is taking anything for granted after what happened on Broadway.
‘We’re hoping that a British audience will really warm to Shrek,’ says Caro.
‘The British are more subversive and they laugh out loud at the burping and flatulence jokes. There is a sense of wickedness and irreverence that the British love and relish, and they empathise with Shrek as an everyman.’
For Amanda, who is scheduled to appear in the show until December, there is also a personal point to prove.
‘I have been in this business for 20 years and I have never not worked — you can’t stay around for that amount of time if you are rubbish,’ she says.
‘Because I am a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, I’m not afraid of putting myself up for judgement. I hope people like what they see.’
Shrek The Musical is now in previews at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Opening night is on June 13. For tickets visit: shrekthemusical.co.uk or call 0844 871 8810