It’s third time lucky for Regents Park Open Air Theatre and 101 Dalmatians which is billed as a new musical. Given that it should have premiered two years ago – and then one year ago (thanks, Covid) -that claim is slightly dubious but as it hasn’t actually graced the stage before I guess the assertion still holds. Based on the famous book by Dodie Smith in a stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris (current book Johnny McKnight) and definitely and defiantly not a retread of the Disney films – animated or otherwise – it is almost a site specific production. Much of the early action takes place in and around the park itself and on a balmy afternoon it’s tailor made to capture the hearts and minds of a young audience many of whom were clutching the soft toy puppies designed to prolong happy memories and certainly not to part the adults from their cash! One child in front of me probably paid more attention to her new plush pet than the activity on stage post interval and was making up her own storyline with herself as the heroine. This at least was a) forgivable and b) understandable. Certainly more so than the grown man next to me who spent almost the entire duration of the show using an app to place bets and watch horse racing (at least with muted sound) throughout proceedings. I suppose people can choose to use or abuse their ticket money anyway they like but it’s a shame when this sort of situation is apparently becoming normalised. Anyway, rant over – what of the show?
Full confession time – the Disney animated film was probably my favourite when I was the age many of the current target audience are and my father being a cinema projectionist I once got to see the tale of dog napping and their attempts to thwart Cruella De Ville, the best villainess that Disney ever created, several times in rapid succession. I can still hum many of the tunes which featured. Just 24 hours later there’s not much of the score that I recall from this stage version though to be fair I’ve only seen this production once. At the time of listening, the numbers were pleasing enough and there was a good deal of spirited playing under the direction of MD Tarek Merchant. As well as offstage numbers the musicians mingle with the actors delivering the odd line and adorning themselves with puppy puppets at every available opportunity. Some of Doulas Hodge’s witty lyrics get lost to the winds or the odd passing aeroplane but audibility was usually sound. He seems to have gone for a variety of musical styles rather than anything specifically identifiable. Proving the old adage, it’s definitely the De Ville that has all the best tunes in “I Can Smell Puppy” and spectacular Act One closer “Für Fur” which I guess would go over even better in the dark.
Kate Fleetwood has always been in the frame to play Cruella and now three years on she finally gets to handle the iconic role. She’s a hoot and there are definitely elements of pantomime villain in there with some outrageous costumes (Katrina Lindsay has some knockout ideas), a series of fright wigs and a voice like fingernails down a blackboard. Yet Fleetwood takes it further than a caricature, heading towards three D territory and even managing to introduce a note of poignancy when she reveals how her past has led her towards being the unsavoury creature she now is. This version updates her into a vape smoking social media influencer for whom fame at any price is paramount and if that means kicking dogs for an online video or skinning alive 99 innocent puppies then so be it. Her more strait laced though deceased sister Linda would certainly not have approved and this ghost from her past lingers in the shape of Cruella’s two gormless nephews Jasper and Casper (George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon in good form) who provide most of the knockabout comedy as a post millennial version of the Chuckle Brothers.
Also post millennial are the dogs’ “pets”, here called Danielle (Karen Fishwick) and Dominic (Eric Stroud) a pair of characters who never really took off and seemed designed to suggest that canines are actually much smarter than their human counterparts – actually that’s probably fair comment. Above all it’s the puppetry designed and directed by Toby Olié which really gives the show its heart. It’s not as elegant as War Horse or as thrillingly stupendous as Life Of Pi but works well in context for the main two dogs Pongo and Perdi. Each is embodied by a pair of performers – Ben Thompson and Yana Penrose manipulate the front half while Danny Collins and Emma Lucia take care of the back end, the voices and especially the personalities. In a nod to modern sensibilities, it is Perdi who displays the real strength of character, especially in a rather mawkish episode where one of the puppies lies dying in the snow.
Indeed, the whole sequence where four of the puppies temporarily escape and are represented by a quartet drawn from twelve child performers from the Regents Park Young Company is a bit of a tonal misstep. There was nothing wrong with what these enthusiastic youngsters did and it was nice to see them being given a big opportunity, but it seemed like a total bolt on simply to provide that opportunity rather than being an integral part of the story. So was a manic sequence in Cruella’s car but at least this had some visual brio to steer it through; this and a couple of other sequences owed more to Tex Avery than Mr Disney with some literally eye popping effects.
And were there actually 101 canines? I didn’t quite get through a head count but reached 90+ so I’m assuming director Timothy Sheader made sure it did what it said on the tin. In a well-staged finale as the pups found they way back home, spotted heads appeared over every conceivable part of Colin Richmond’s playful set. In fact, it probably reached 102 because right at the end … but I’ll resist spoilers as I don’t want to ruin the moment. I wonder if the man sitting next to me even noticed! There were probably too many shifts of tone to provide overall consistency but it is far from the dog’s dinner which a number of fellow reviewers have unkindly branded it. Yes it’s more slobbery mongrel than pedigree Crufts but it’s mostly barking up the right tree.