“If I Ever Was A Princess, I’d be Fiona!” – Joanne Clifton Discusses Shrek The Musical at Wales Millennium Centre

DreamWorks stage presentation of Shrek the Musical arrives at Wales Millennium Centre from 20 – 25 November 2024. Featuring fabulous songs including I’m a Believer, Shrek the Musical continues to be a “musical extravaganza for big kids and little kids alike”.

Joining Antony Lawrence as Shrek and Olivier Award-nominee James Gillian as Lord Farquaad is stage star Joanne Clifton. After winning the World Professional Showdance Champion and the European Professional Ballroom Championship, Joanne Clifton joined the iconic TV show Strictly Come Dancing as a professional dancer. During her time on the show, she won the Christmas Special with McFly’s Harry Judd and went on to win the glitterball trophy as the 2016 champion with her partner Ore Oduba. On stage Joanne was most recently seen in Windfall (Southwark Playhouse) and The Addams Family (UK Tour).   

Now, Joanne is back on tour in Shrek the Musical as Princess Fiona, and, as she reveals to Andy Howells, is having the best of times!

How much makeup does playing Princess Fiona entail?

I’ve kind of got just enough makeup on (I haven’t done my eyelashes yet). Really, if I was going on a night out, probably this would be it. When I’m Human Fiona, I’m the one with the least makeup on the stage.

Anthony Lawrence, who plays Shrek is in full-on prosthetics for the whole day, then we’ve got Donkey, and he’s got bits drawn on. The fairy tale creatures change about 5 times during the show, because they have glitter, wings, or whatever on their faces. Then they become Duloc dancers or guards.

I’ve got the easiest track in terms of makeup because I’m Human Fiona. There’s a bit at the end of Act 1 – spoiler alert! (laughs) – that I become an ogre, but it’s more to do with lighting. So, you’d have to come and see it. At the end of Act 2, I have 54 seconds to run off stage, take off the human dress, the human wig, then put on padding for the ogre, the ogre dress, ogre wig, ogre nose prosthetic, ogre hands, then I am painted, and I run back on!

Is that like a Formula One pit lane change?

Yes, exactly that. I have 5 people, also we’ve made it like a choreography. We’ve got into this rhythm of doing it because there’s so many people around me doing different things. We’ve got into such a rhythm that yesterday’s show was the first time I was ready ages before all the fairy tale creatures. They could see me on stage going, “Oh, she’s ready!” (laughs).

The cast of Shrek the Musical UK and Ireland Tour 2023-4 Photography Credit Marc Brenner

Winding back to your childhood, both you and your brother, Kevin Clifton were competitive dancers, but did you always aspire to the stage?

We always did dance of course, my whole family dances, parents, aunties, uncles and grandparents. I also had singing and acting lessons every week. I did exams in them, and I was in the local operatic society. We did some shows and then I gave up on it to pursue dancing, because that was a safe route for me, even though I would have looked at both sides. I just went, “Okay, I’m focused on the dancing,” so I moved to Italy when I was 16.

I had to stop with the singing and acting lessons. However, in the night-time I lived in a little apartment attached to a dance studio. So, when everyone had gone home, I always used to sneak into the dance studio, put backing track CDs on and sing. My main song was Part of your World from The Little Mermaid, I was always singing it!

After I got the gold medal for the Championship, I came back to England to do Strictly. In the months Strictly wasn’t on, I started training privately in singing and acting and other styles of dance and carried on from there. I did go to a theatre school for 2 months in New York at the beginning of 2020, then got back just in time before lockdown!

It’s always been there. Little did we know how much this would mean to us, but my dad, when he would drive us to lessons and competitions around the country would always have cassette tapes on of musicals or musical stars. I remember, Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats and Oklahoma, plus singers like Marti Webb, Michael Crawford and Michael Ball. We’d be hearing this and discuss how, without seeing them, they made us feel emotion through singing and expression through their voice. Dad would say, “We haven’t got the voice in dancing, we’ve got movement. We need to make people feel emotions by using our bodies, facial expressions and feelings through movement.” That’s been with us the whole time. We were inspired by hearing, not seeing musical theatre stars.

You brought a lot of joy to people on Strictly. It was a great launch pad for your new career and people discovering who you were.

Definitely. I mean, I’m so grateful to have been on that, but it wasn’t really my goal. I always wanted to become world champion, that was my goal!  I stood on the podium, it’s a weird feeling. I was like, “Okay, that’s done. That’s it. Next?” and then, of course, the chance to do Strictly came along. I was like, “Oh, that’s come out of nowhere! Completely changed my life again!”  Move back to England away from all my friends and my coaches. Everything started up because my brother, Kevin was already on it.

To be on Strictly Come Dancing was one of the best experiences of my life. I got to year 3 and I have the same feeling as I sat in the dressing room with my agent after I’d won. I was in complete shock because we didn’t think we would win at all. I was like, “Well, now is the perfect time to just go into the musical theatre world and just throw myself in there!”

Of course, my family were panicked. They were like, “Oh, my gosh, you’ve done dancing all this time, and you’ve only done 3 years on this TV show. You’re just starting to make a name for yourself, this is a massive leap to go from the top of your game to the bottom in something else. But I took the risk and thank God, it worked!

Thoroughly Modern Millie was my first UK tour, then Flashdance. Then I went back to do a fringe version of Top Hat because I’d done fringe before. Rocky Horror, a fringe version of Pippin. Addams Family… then Shrek!

Brandon Lee Sears (Donkey), Antony Lawrence (Shrek) and Joanne Clifton (Fiona) in Shrek the Musical UK and Ireland Tour 2023-4 Photography Credit Marc Brenner

What drew you to Shrek the Musical? Were you familiar with the film or the theatre production?

Who isn’t familiar with the film? The thing is with Shrek is that, of course, the films amazing.

If I ever was a princess, or to play a princess, I’d be Fiona! I wouldn’t be what you imagine a fairy tale princess to be. I relate to her because I am a world champion ballroom dancer. If people could draw a picture or write a paragraph of what a world champion ballroom dancer should be like, it would be elegant, graceful, softly spoken, flowing, gliding across the dance floor. I’m not that. So, it’s the same as what Princess Fiona thinks she should be like, the princesses she’s read about in books who are softly spoken and waiting for their prince to rescue them. She’s not like that at all, she’s a farter, a burper and feisty. She doesn’t want to be rescued. She can take care of herself.

On top of that, I’m a massive, Sutton Foster fan. When I did my first big lead role on UK tour, it was Thoroughly Modern Millie. So of course, I did a lot of research into other productions of it and she won the Tony award for Millie on Broadway. I watched a lot of videos of her, interviews, speeches and talks that she had done, and I was just like – “I love this woman, I think she’s the best thing ever.” Sutton Foster has always been a massive idol of mine. Of course, she did Princess Fiona on Broadway. You can watch the stage version on television and again she was incredible. So that was another reason why I wanted this job.

But obviously you’re bringing yourself to this role as well?

It’s an official DreamWorks production, but it’s reimagined, so, it’s not like any of the tours or any of the versions you’ve seen before. We’ve got new sets, slightly tweaked costumes. Farquaad is not on his knees. The dragon is not just a puppet anymore, because our dragon, Cherece Richards is so amazing that they wanted to show her off as a performer. Why should she be in the wings singing? So, we do have the puppet, but Cherece is also very present to show her in a new, exciting version.

Brandon Lee Sears (Donkey) and Antony Lawrence (Shrek) in Shrek the Musical UK and Ireland Tour 2023-4 Photography Credit Marc Brenner

You’re also reaching a family audience with Shrek the Musical.

I wouldn’t say that it is just a children’s show. There is a lot of stuff in there for kids, but there’s also a lot for adults, which goes over children’s heads. For example, we all know that there is the song in which Shrek and Fiona have a fart- off. Not only do the children love it, but the adults also love it.  You can hear them coming out saying, “Oh, My God! The farting bits amazing.” Shrek is for any age. It’s a fun, feelgood version of the film that everybody knows and loves. I’m 40 and the film came out over 20 years ago. So, it’s all like these memories that come back, it’s not just for kids. It’s literally for everyone.

It’s a very authentic and cartoon looking presentation too. That must be very Surreal to walk on to every night.

Oh, it’s great. Philip Whitcomb has designed the set and costumes. The set has arches around it, as though you’re looking into a cartoon, imaginary storybook world that makes it so magical. The way he’s used the LED screen at the back gives the impression of where you are with the background, and sometimes it moves to show they’re travelling. There’s one bit when we’re escaping from the tower, moving down a rope, it’s very clever as it looks like people are just looking down on us, going down this tower.

The cast of Shrek the Musical UK and Ireland Tour 2023-4 Photography Credit Marc Brenner

What’s your favourite moment of Shrek the Musical?

When else in my life am I going to get an applause for farting?  So, I lap that up every night!

Also, some of the more emotional numbers. At the end of Act 1, there’s a song called Who I’d Be. It’s Shrek’s song, talking about if he wasn’t an Ogre what his dreams would be. Then both Fiona and Donkey join in and I’m saying how I would want to be a princess. I just think it’s a lovely original song. Quite a heartfelt moment.

There is a great number called Freak Flag, which, I’m not in, but all the fairy tale creatures including Pinocchio, fairies, three bears and three pigs, are like, “Yes, we are what people think are weird.” It’s like “Be who you want to be,” It’s an uplifted message, and everybody’s just going for it with this amazing choreography by Nick Winston. I’m stood at the side with the dressers, literally just dancing away with them. It’s a great number!

Are you looking forward to returning to Cardiff?

I am because I’ve never been to the Wales Millennium Centre. I love Cardiff. Anyway, the audiences are incredible. So yeah, it’s going to be great.

For ticket availability visit Wales Millennium Centre’s website

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