Saturday, August 13

101 Dalmatians – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Loosely based on the 1956 classic tale by Dodie Smith, ‘101 Dalmatians’ see Dominic and Danielle literally bumping into each other and falling in love while out walking their dotty dogs Pongo and Perdi.  Local influencer Cruella DeVil thinks the dogs would look great in her upcoming photoshoot, but during the shoot, the dogs severe dislike of Cruella causes one of them to bite her. She attacks the dogs with a stick, and her retaliation is caught on social media, going viral within minutes. Cruella quickly swears revenge on the dogs, and plots to dognap the spotted pooches and make herself a coat that no-one will ever forget.  It’s a timeless story that audiences already knows, but does the Regent’s Park production have legs, or is it more of a dog’s dinner?

Visually, the show is a feast.  The set is wonderfully cartoonish (in a good way), with the show’s title spelled out in movable letters that double-up to create other locations and backdrops.  The space is used well, with performers entering not just from the stage but from the sides and through the audience as well, which make the production feel all the more involving and engaging.  Puppetry (designed by Toby Olie) is charmingly and inventively done, and the actors blend seamlessly with their canine counterparts, quickly becoming one. As with other productions of this type (‘The Life Of Pi’, ‘Animal Farm’), any fears that the puppeteers detract from the magic are quickly dispersed, and little kids and big kids alike will believe that Pongo and Perdi are alive and talking in front of them.  Younger children will love seeing the dogs running through the auditorium, as well as Cruella stalking her way up the aisles as she wickedly hunts them down during her sneering “I Can Smell Puppy” number.

As a musical, the show is (pun full intended) “spotty”.  Douglas Hodge’s score has some undeniable highlights (“Litterbugs”, “Fur Fur”, “All Of Our Kisses”, “One Hundred And One”), but also has stretches that feel somewhat underwhelming.  The best numbers have a traditional “cockney knees-up” feel to them, which works well, but some of the more lacklustre songs need a rethink.  The book by Johnny McKnight is witty, with some delicious dark humour for Cruella and also genuinely laugh-out-loud material given to Casper and Jasper, her bungling nephews.  Pace does slow whenever Cruella isn’t around (perhaps inevitable with such a powerhouse villain), but this is where the show becomes problematic; the story takes a new slant on Cruella, updating her from an upper-class fashion designer to an East End influencer (think the missing Slater sister with a Twitter account). 

While the show is to be commended for attempting a reinvention of such an iconic and well-known character, the move does feel as if actually limits the shelf-life of the piece, and that in trying to appear as modern as possible, it will actually date that much quicker.  Costumes aren’t what you’d necessary expect for Cruella either; gone are the high-couture gowns and chic designer glam of Glenn Close’s era, and even the wigs feel more Harley Quinn than DeVil. But it’s a reimagining (something theatre should always be open to doing), and luckily in the hands of Kate Fleetwood, she mostly makes it work.  Fleetwood sells it with such a delicious wickedness in her eyes that she’s able to step out of Close’s shadow, making the character her own, sounding great in her numbers, and vamping it up to the max (particularly for the Act One finale, which is a real “wow” moment).

Other performance props need to go to Emma Lucia and Danny Collins, who provide the voices of Perdi and Pongo while helping to co-puppeteer as well.  Both do a great job, with Lucia in particularly fine voice.  Jonny Weldon (Casper) and George Bukhari (Jasper) also do well as Cruella’s idiot nephews, really landing their comedy and making a great double-act.  Less successful are Eric Stroud (Dominic) and Karen Fishwick (Danielle), but only because their characters are frustratingly 2-dimensional with little opportunity for any chemistry between the actors, more often coming across as brother and sister than husband and wife.  Arguably this doesn’t really matter though, as the focus rightly stays on the dogs and Cruella throughout most of the story.

As a fresh take on a nearly-70-year-old story, ‘101 Dalmatians’ is a colourful and fun musical, with just enough bark and bite to make it worth your time.  Pace could be tighter, some songs could be livelier, and without Fleetwood’s deliciously dark performance it would be a much lesser animal, but it’s worth taking a walkies down to Regent’s Park to check it out.

‘101 Dalmatians’ plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 28th August 2022. Performance run time 2 hours 20 minutes including interval. https://openairtheatre.com/production/101-dalmatians

Reviewer: Rob Bartley

Reviewed: 22nd July 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★

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