The Magic of the Theatre

Shrek (Dean Chisnall) and Princess Fiona (Faye Brookes.)

Shrek (Dean Chisnall) and Princess Fiona (Faye Brookes.) - Credit: Helen Maybanks

As Shrek The Musical arrives in Norwich, Rowan Mantell talks to the man who keeps the show on the road – and who adores Norfolk.

Neil White has visited Norfolk with singing nuns, a roller-skating train and now he is thrilled to be back with a love-sick ogre. As company manager for the touring production of Shrek The Musical, he travels the country with an entourage of ogres, elves, a donkey, a dragon, make-up magicians, costume-wranglers and crew.

This month Shrek and co arrive at the Theatre Royal Norwich, for a three-week run and Neil, who loves Norfolk in general and the north coast and the Theatre Royal in particular, could hardly be happier.

“I first worked at the Theatre Royal when I was 18,” says Neil, now 44. “I was an assistant stage manager and it was one of my first jobs. And I keep coming back. It’s one of those theatres that I have got a massive connection with.”

Oliver, The Sound of Music and Starlight Express are just some of the shows which Neil has since brought to Norwich. He has also worked on Theatre Royal pantomimes.

“There are some theatres which are very special,” says Neil. “The brilliant thing about Norwich is that because it is an independent theatre the money that is made is invested back into the theatre. A lot of the staff have been there a long time, which is testament to what a great place it is to work. There is a genuine welcome when you go to Norwich. People are really excited about seeing you.”

Although he grew up in Yorkshire, his parents had a holiday home at Weybourne and he says: “Norfolk was almost home too, I spent so many summers and Christmases in Weybourne. It’s a real shame my parents haven’t still got the house, because staying there and working in Norwich would be wonderful. Norfolk has some of the most beautiful coastline in the country. We’ll be in Norwich for three weeks so I’m hoping to have time to go up to the coast.”

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Neil fell in love with theatre as a child and was offered the chance to join the National Youth Theatre at 15.

“I had barely been out of Yorkshire - except to Norfolk of course - and there I was in London, working alongside people like Daniel Craig and Jamie Theakston,” says Neil. “I got a real passion for being back-stage. I loved the organisational side of it, and the creativity. I went back to start my A-Levels, but I also used to work in my local theatre, back stage, and one day I announced to my parents that I was leaving school the next day because I’d been offered a job in the panto crew! My parents were very good. They gave me a year to show it could be a career, and if not I had to return to school.”

Almost three decades later he has definitely proved he can forge a career in theatre. He explains his role as company manager as being “the boss on tour”.

“I make sure the show happens, the payroll is done, I look after the cast and the crew, make sure publicity calls and rehearsals happen,” he says.

There are more than 70 people in the touring company and the cast of 23 is headed by Dean Chisnall, who will be reprising the lead role which won him critical acclaim in the West End.

Norfolk boy Kevin Yates will be playing Pig. The actor and dancer, who grew up in Gaywood, near King’s Lynn, and was a pupil at Springwood High School in Lynn, was cast straight out of drama school and is thrilled to be returning to his home county with Shrek. Kevin says: “My life changed in about three weeks and I still have days when I’m putting on my costume or make-up and I just can’t believe how lucky I am to be doing this.”

Shrek The Musical tells the story of an ogre who rescues beautiful Princess Fiona from a lovesick dragon. Backstage at each theatre Neil must find room for all the ogre heads and wigs, another for the make-up department and space for 300 costumes for the show, which has been seen by almost a million people.

“People think Shrek is very much a children’s show, but I defy anyone not to enjoy it. It’s a story with so much heart. It’s about not looking at the outside but at what’s inside.”

And this month he will be bringing the magic to one of his favourite places. “I love my job. It’s a little bit like being a proud parent, standing at the back of the stalls, watching it all happen.” ?

Shrek The Musical is at the Theatre Royal Norwich from June 9 to 28. Tickets £8-£45; box office 01603 630000;