Shrek actor Steffan chats about playing the much-loved green ogre

When Shrek The Musical returns to Norwich this summer from June 26 to July 8,  leading a cast of colourful characters as beloved swamp-dwelling ogre ‘Shrek’ will be actor Steffan Harri.

Steffan previously starred in the original UK tour of the musical when he covered the role of Lord Farquaad. Steffan’s West End theatre credits include Les Misérables (Queen’s Theatre), Spamalot (Playhouse Theatre) and Children of Eden (Prince of Wales Theatre). He also played Lyn in Welsh language soap opera Rownd a Rownd.

Here he chats about how he transforms into the friendly green ogre and reveals some favourite moments for the show:

How does it feel to be the star of the show?  I am over the moon to be playing the part. I never thought I would be back in a million years but here I am, and we have just hit 100 shows on Thurs or Fri which is bonkers really. We opened in Edinburgh over Christmas and about 60,000 people came to watch us in the space of about four weeks. And I think about 120,000 people have seen us so far, so how many we’ll have by the time we are in Norwich I am not sure.

What is your favourite thing about playing Shrek in the show?  There are so many different aspects and so many layers to his character, but I think the thing I most enjoy is jumping out of that picture book right at the beginning. I can see about the first eight rows back and the little kids, when I jump out they don’t expect it and then I do this big roar as well, so just to be able to see their faces when I jump through is definitely my favourite thing.

You have a very elaborate costume and make-up – what does that involve?  That takes about an hour and a quarter to 30 minutes in make-up every day and that’s just my face. So on a weekly basis it’s about 40 hours in make-up, which means all year I will be in make-up for  1880 minutes which is crazy. But I am loving it. I have this incredible fat costume which weighs about 40 lbs and it can get up to 37 degrees in the costume, and I am hot already and it’s not even summer yet. I don’t know what to expect this summer. That takes another quarter of an hour to put on, so it’s a big combination. It takes about two and a half hours before I even get on stage. It’s a work-out and a big challenge, but I love it and it’s a lovely cast. It’s such a massive role as well. We had an alternate actor who did the Sunday shows before, but this time I do all eight shows in the week and my body really does feel it. Monday off is very welcome but it’s great to be back.

What is it like to sing in the head mask and make-up?  The singing is tough – it’s like singing in a goldfish bowl. Different theatres are different size and the sound is different in every theatre so 100 shows in it is still a challenge. I don’t hear the band quite as well as everyone else. Every sound-check I do I don’t have the head mask on, so it is great doing the sound-check but a few hours later when I am in the show it’s ‘Whoah, what happened!’ as I just have these two little holes on the side of the head. But I knew of the challenges that the part brought and that’s what attracted me back to the role. I wanted something that really pushed me physically and mentally – and it does!

Do you have any favourite scenes in the show?  I do love the song ‘Who I’d Be’ at the end of the first half. I really enjoy performing that song every evening. It’s the song that I did in the auditions and in the first tour I used to love listening to Dean Chisnell, who was Shrek then, singing it. I was the cover for Farquaad then so I never got the chance to do the material but now I get to sing it every night which is brilliant.

Is it nice coming back to a show you enjoyed so much first time round?  Yes, I never thought I’d be back. I did Les Mis in the West End in between, but I’m just so grateful to them for giving me the opportunity and putting their trust in me. I hope I am doing it justice.

What have been your career highlights to-date?It has probably been being part of Monty Python’s Spamalot in the West End which me and Sam Holmes, who plays Farquaad, did for a brief spell we did that together. So I have known Sam for a long time. The Monty Python lads are so witty and so clever so that was a great pleasure to play every night – and I played Sir Lancelot in that production in The Playhouse Theatre. So I have been very fortunate since graduating five years ago and never thought at the age of 26 I’d be playing Shrek. It’s very bizarre. My older brother is a lawyer, my sister is a doctor and then I put on a green mask every day and play Shrek for a living. We are so different but very supportive of each other and there is no competition because we are all in totally different fields.

Where you a fan of the film?  I was a massive fan of the film. I was ten-years-old when it came out first in 2001 and I remember going with Dad down to Welshpool cinema and I never thought I would be playing Shrek one day. We elaborate on the musical and you see a little bit into Shrek’s background and Fiona’s background, and the message we portray in the show is that it’s OK to be different, especially in the world we live in at the moment where it is so image obsessed. I think it’s an important message for children to hear and for us adults as well. I remember in one show, at the part where I call myself an ugly ogre, a little girl shouted out  ‘You’re not ugly Shrek’ and the Stalls just erupted, and that is one of my favourite moments so far on the tour. I thought ‘Well I have got through to one little girl’. That is something that will stick in my mind for a long time.

 What inspired you as a child to go down the theatrical route?  I am a farmer’s son from mid-Wales. Every time I wanted to sing or act, my grandad would tell my mum off and say ‘he needs to be a farmer and go to agricultural school’. So bless him, if he was still here now I don’t know what he would think of me on stage as Shrek. My parents were religious so I used to go to chapel every Sunday and I think I could sing before I could talk. I’d go up to the pulpit and do a song or a hymn at the end of every chapel, so that was where I started to sing. Then I went to a youth theatre school during high school from the age of 12-16 and the teachers there really encouraged me to go for it. I went to a summer school in London and loved it and decided to audition and I studied at Guildford School of Acting which was definitely the best place for me. It wasn’t in London as I’m used to the green grass of Wales, so it was a halfway mark, and now I live in London.

 Are you looking forward to returning to Norwich?  I have a friend who lives in Norwich who studied with me at Guildford and I have fond memories of my last visit there. It was so sunny, so I had a great time. The Norwich audiences were well up for Shrek last time and hopefully they will enjoy it again. It’s fun for all the family, so dads shouldn’t think it is just a show for kids as even the dads who get dragged along to those matinees, they go away laughing.  Lord Farquaad’s material is so witty – it’s for the adults. So come for a great night out and I’ll guarantee they’ll leave laughing with a smile on their face.