Ahead of the brand-new UK tour of Shrek the Musical, I got to sit down with the female lead, Joanne Clifton (Princess Fiona), during the cast’s first week of rehearsals.
How are you feeling?
J: “I’ve just had a wig fit-in and a makeup trial for Fiona so it’s all very exciting, and Donkey’s having his fit-in now as well. So I nearly did this interview with this wig cap on.”
How did it feel to be cast in Shrek? Were you a fan of the movie beforehand?
J: “I’m a massive fan of the film, the original film, and I have seen the musical before, however, this is a completely new production. Fiona is one of my dream roles, and when I heard it was coming out I absolutely hounded them for an audition: ‘I need an audition… Hi, can I audition? I need to audition for Fiona!
“Even in the audition, I just came in and I sat in front of the producer and I said: ‘Listen, this is why I need to be Fiona’, and I listed about three reasons before I even sang or did any scenes.
“I’m just over the moon. We had our first day of rehearsals on Monday and they threw us right in the deep end. We went straight in after we’d seen pictures of the set and costumes. We did a complete read-through and sing-through. To have the whole company together is amazing.
“I’d met Anthony and Brandon, who plays Shrek and Donkey, before because we did the Big Night of Musicals in Manchester for the BBC. But to meet everybody and to hear everyone because of course, there are all the fairytale characters. I nearly cried because Anthony was singing to me in an emotional bit. We were laughing, crying. It was great. I was just the happiest person.”
How was the transformation process?
J: “Well, I’ve not done it yet because we’ve only just started rehearsal, so I’ve just had my wig and makeup tested out for human Fiona. But I haven’t actually tried ogre Fiona yet but I’m very much looking forward to it.
“Before it was announced, people were guessing what my job was and I wasn’t allowed to tell them. So I was just saying, I’ll give you a clue: ‘I’m going green.’ Of course, everybody thinks immediately Elphaba, and I go ‘Not that green!'”
What’s your favourite thing about the show?
J: “I just love the magic of it. The crazy world. It’s so funny. Everybody in this cast has their own part, and I love the message behind it as well: [it’s] about being who you are; being who you want to be without trying to be someone that people expect you to be. Just being yourself.
“And also, there’s stuff for kids but it’s also for the whole family – it’s for adults as well. Even the unexpected friendships between an ogre and a donkey and a Princess. It’s crazy. I just love it!
Is it a lot of pressure having the movie in the background or does that make it more exciting?
J: “Well, I think the audiences are going to have certain expectations of it because there is a movie, however, I have done other musicals that are like that. I’ve just done The Addams Family. We have to give the audience what they expect and what they know and love. However, I’ve got to bring myself to it as well because however much I try to be exactly the same voice or intonation as Cameron Diaz’s Princess Fiona, I’ll never ever be Cameron Diaz. So I’m just going to bring Joanne to it as well. It’s the same in The Addams Family with Anjelica Houston. And I’m never gonna be Anjelica Houston however much I try. So it’s better to bring my own to it.”
So how about your dance background? How does it feel to be part of a family of dancers?
J: “It’s all I’ve known so just normal for me. My whole family are dancers, literally. Kevin [Clifton] was on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? yesterday so we were learning about the history of our family but there [weren’t] many dancers. That kind of stops at our grandparents.
“But it’s normal for me now because I’ve danced since I was in my first dance competition at four. My mum and dad, as long as I’ve been alive, have had the dance school and have been dancers themselves and of course my big brother.”
Did you always dream of being a dancer and actress?
J: “Yes! I always had two dreams: one to be a world champion dancer, and two, to be in musical theatre.
“I’ve loved musical theatre since I was a kid. I’ve had acting lessons, dancing lessons, and singing lessons. I was in the local operatic society. I did my exams and stuff in acting and singing, and then I moved to Italy because I started dancing with this guy from Italy so I had to stop with my lessons and musical theatre stuff. Then I came back when I was 30, after I got my gold medal, came back to England and did Strictly before I started my lessons again.
“So when Strictly wasn’t on, I was also training in my acting and singing again. Starting out, I did some fringe musicals above a pub and stuff like that to start from the bottom [and] work my way up. In my third year of Strictly, I managed to win it and I thought, ‘You know what, now’s the time. We’re gonna go. We’re going to live out that childhood dream.'”
Since you’ve achieved both of those dreams, where are you going to go now?
J: “Well, I haven’t done West End yet so that’s still a thing… I’m learning how to do screen acting and stuff but I just love theatre.
“When I bought my house a few years ago, the mortgage advisor there said: ‘What age do you think you’re going to retire?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to retire… in theatre you can just carry on to whatever age.’ Especially singing or even just acting in plays, as of course, dancing-wise would be a bit more difficult. But I can’t see myself retiring at all.
“So, if anything, I just want to stay in musical theatre. Even now I’ve just met the cast of Shrek. It’s a big cast, and I just looked around at them on Monday and you become a little family, and this is going to be my family for the next 10 months.”
So, a more serious question: How do you deal with hurdles and rejections? Have you got any advice for aspiring performers?
J: “I mean, this industry is tough! There are so many going for not so many roles. You are going to get so many ‘noes’ before you get that one ‘yes’. But I feel like the more noes you get, the more you learn and improve and you train to get better. That makes [the] time you get the ‘yes’ all the most special. I’ve always said this to my pupils in dance as well as theatre: ‘As long as you remember why you love doing it, and visualise yourself in the role that you want, you can reach your goals.’
“I visualised myself as Fiona. I auditioned for it last time but it’s a different production. This is the official Dreamworks production now. I didn’t get it that time but I would visualise because it’s my dream, or I would say: ‘Okay, so I didn’t get it that time, so what do I need to improve on this?’ Then the time came; I actually got the role, and it’s going to be so special.”
Do you have any other hobbies or passions outside of acting and dancing?
J: “Yes. Lego. Lego and jigsaw puzzles. I’m actually fifth in Britain in jigsaw puzzles but the championships are coming ’round again now so I’m gonna lose that title cause I can’t do it cause I’m in Shrek. But for the past year, I’ve been fifth in Britain in jigsaws and now I’ve moved on to Lego. So I’m going to take a set on tour and do it each week.”
Which sets are you going to start with?
J: “I don’t know. Last night I just did Dobby, the house elf. I feel like there’s lots of new sets for Disney 100 so I’m just going to look and see what there is.”
Whilst Joanne Clifton decides what Lego sets she wants to do, you can catch her in Shrek the Musical, which tours the UK from July 21 2023 to April 21 2024. The musical’s second stop is Opera House Manchester, where it runs from August 1 to 12 2023.