Shrek’s Lord Farquaad actor Samuel Holmes chats about playing the pint-sized villain

After a long wait, the much anticipated arrival of Shrek The Musical at Norwich Theatre Royal is now less than a week away, with opening night scheduled for next Tuesday!

Squaring up to the larger-than-life characters despite his short statue will be pint-sized villain Lord Farquaad, played by Samuel Holmes. Samuel’s theatrical credits include the role of George in the UK Tour of The Wedding Singer, Mrs Henderson Presents (Theatre Royal Bath; Noel Coward Theatre), Water Babies (Curve Theatre), Spamalot (Playhouse Theatre), Kiss Me Kate (Chichester Festival Theatre) and Crazy for You (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre; Novello Theatre).

                                                                                    

It must be great fun playing Lord Farquaad – what is the role like?

It is great fun. I had a lot of help from Nigel Harmer who played the role in London. So it was very useful because he was able to say ‘do this, do that’ and gave me a lot of help on how to look after my knees and how to get the best amount of laughs which is what I do it for really.

How would you describe Lord Farquaad?

He’s a megalomaniac and a narcissist – he knows that he’s about four foot two, but it is buried deep in the recesses of his brain so he thinks he’s normal and I think the funniest thing about the character is he thinks the show is called Lord Farquaad. He thinks it’s his show and that everyone else is in the way, especially Shrek. His whole raison d’etre is ‘find a princess, marry her, become king, rule the land’. It’s the usual despot thing. He thinks he is the star of the show and of course he isn’t, so you see this comedy of frustration as this man tries consistently to bring it all back to him and it all goes awry.

It must be very challenging as you are performing on your knees?

It’s hard work because physically I had never done that before – I have done about 28 years of theatre work and have always done it on my feet. Then I was thrown this curve ball and this very clever costume and rig to do it on your knees, and it is very comfortable because it is so well constructed. But when we do double show weekends, when we do two on a Saturday and two on a Sunday, it can get a little arduous because it is tiring. Everything works differently – the diaphragm works differently, how I look at people – everything changes. When I am stood singing I don’t have to think about it because I am so used to it. But being four feet two and having to do it is a little more difficult.

Has it changed your perspective on the world?

It has. I’ve constantly got a sore neck because I am constantly looking up at people. It’s good fun and the audience spend the first 30 seconds when I walk on trying to work out how it’s done. I can hear them laugh and then after about 30 seconds I no longer want them to think about me as a six foot one man but to look at the character and think that’s a four foot two man. That’s very important because for them to believe it, especially the kids, they have to forget that I am the height I am and just see him as a little man. It’s a huge challenge but the writing is so good and the show is so strong. It’s like if people go to see Singin’ in the Rain. They’ve already seen the movie. So all we can do is pay homage to Dreamworks’ Shrek. I think the show actually works better on the stage as we are able to show things you can’t show in the dvd, and obviously it’s immersive. You can watch the dvd at home and pause it, press play again, whereas in the theatre you have to be a part of the show and you have to come on the journey with us. So it is collaborative in that sense and I like that.  We have to work just as hard as the audience has to work hard. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. I always say it is a bit like trying to recreate the World Cup in 1966. You want to try to recreate that atmosphere every night and it sometimes happens and sometimes it doesn’t, because we are all humans and we’re not a dvd.

What is your favourite thing about being part of Shrek?

This company is superb. I have worked in many companies but I am having such fun backstage with this one – if you could sell tickets to what we are all doing backstage that would be a real hit. They are just lovely and that is very rare in any job. I have thoroughly enjoyed that – sometimes the show gets in the way! It’s a great fun show to do and because the audience already knows part of it, it makes our job a little bit easier and also a little bit harder. But it’s nice that they come knowing what to expect and then we throw things at them that they wouldn’t expect. They think they are going down one path and then we take them down another. There really is something for everyone on many levels. A bit like those Dreamworks dvds, there is something for the adults, something for the kids and something that only certain people will get – and that’s great fun.

Are you looking forward to visiting Norwich?

We’ve always had great audiences in Norwich. It’s a beautiful theatre. I do love that part of the UK – that East Coast is stunning. I sometimes got to Norwich for a day trip – you have the market, the independent stores, the cathedral. It is just a stunning part of the world and down towards Ipswich is very pretty and also a lovely part of the world. The theatre has that lovely star ceiling –  it’s beautiful. I came there in 2011 with Spamalot and the audiences went nuts for it, so I am looking forward to going back.

Which of the musical numbers in the show do you most enjoy performing?

My two numbers are totally directed at the audience and they are very much break-the-fourth-wall, so it’s good fun. They are typical show business numbers. One is a ballad and the other is a big showbiz ‘42nd Street style’ number. There is one song that every night I like to go side of stage and listen to and that is in Act Two and done by the entire company – and once again to sing their praises, they have got phenomenal voices. The song is so well-structured and so well written, it is just fabulous and the audiences go nuts for it. The cast has worked so hard and it sounds amazing and I love just to listen to it. If I could be in any number it would be in that one.

How do you pace yourself in such a physical production?

I drink heavily in the evenings to numb the pain! (Joke!) You do have to take care of yourself. Some of us will do a group Pilates class.  I like swimming so I’ll just tend to go and swim. Any show, any tour, you have to be very careful because it is like a marathon. You start at 5.30pm and then you go right through to 10pm some nights. It’s in peaks and troughs because you’ll be on for five minutes but you’ll be running 80 miles an hour, but after five minutes it ends and you can go and have a sit down. It’s mentally tough because one week we are in Norwich and the next we’re in Glasgow, and then next in Belfast and then you’re taken to Truro, then to Southampton – I have been touring since I was 19 so even now I am still not used to it. I love it because I love the UK and seeing all around the world, but I have woken up some mornings and I don’t know where I am. It’s quite bizarre and it doesn’t suit everyone. But when I was working in London, it’s great  to be in London’s glittering West End but you’ve got the Tubes and the travel and all that but I don’t know which I prefer. They both have their pros and cons. But you do have to keep physically fit and eat well and stay healthy, and I try to do that.

How did your theatrical career begin?

Originally I am from Plymouth and I grew up in theatre. My great grandfather used to sing and host the knobbly knee competition on Plymouth Hoe, which sadly doesn’t happen anymore, and my mum was a dancer for many years and still runs two companies in in Plymouth. From a babe in arms she always used to take me to rehearsal, so I have grown up in a theatre so I didn’t know any different. The idea of putting me in an office would probably kill me and I’d probably be put in a jail for some of the things I can get away with in a theatre! I am very, very lucky really.

What have been your career highlights to-date?

Well I wanted to do Shrek the first time it came around, but it didn’t happen and another great actor got the role. A role is never yours, you are a custodian really. You play it and then you pass it on to someone else. I still to this day don’t believe it but I worked with the Pythons on their very last farewell tour for their last gig at the O2, and it was a surreal time just to be in their very close company. I am now very grateful to call them friends and am working with one of them on another project. To be that close to stars and legends was amazing. Just to be at London’s O2 with 20,000 people was amazing and it was nice to be part of that and to soak it up. Spamalot was great fun because I met some very good friends on that and it was good fun to do. I just like doing fun stuff, silly stuff, because there’s enough seriousness out there. I love opera. I love all the tragedy and Shakespeare. I love reading all that, but when I come to work I just love to be silly for two hours. Comedy is a serious business and it’s tough. If I were doing Macbeth or Coriolanus you don’t worry if people cry or are emoting. You don’t have to worry about a reaction. Whereas when you go for a joke the laughter is either there or it’s not, so doing comedy is tough. Everywhere we go around the UK it changes because tastes change. It’s hard work but I love it. I couldn’t do anything else.