Based upon the beloved novel by Dodie Smith and adapted for the stage by Debbie Isitt, Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Christmas offering for 2017 is The Hundred and One Dalmatians. When the evil Cruella de Vil sets her sights on the fifteen Dalmatian puppies belonging to Pongo and Missus (and their owners Anita and Roger Dearly), the two dogs are thrown into a daring rescue adventure.
A whole assortment of dogs of all shapes and sizes is brought to life by an ingenious collection of puppets, designed and directed by Jimmy Grimes. From a graceful, gliding Afghan hound, to a bobbing pug, and a ludicrous Chihuahua hand puppet, these four-legged friends move with exceptional character and charm. The Dalmatian puppets are particularly successful; Emma Thornett and Oliver Wellington create an engaging partnership as Missus and Pongo, manipulating their gorgeous puppets with bounding energy.
Children and adults alike are enthralled by the ever-multiplying brood of Dalmatian puppies. Fluffy, four-legged puppets convey the mischief of Patch, Lucky, Roly and the rest of the Pongos’ unruly litter of pups. Once the puppies are imprisoned in the de Vil mansion, the stage is filled with a bouncing, spotty mass which brings to life the adorable chaos of The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
However, whilst the inventive use of puppetry evokes the spirit of Dodie Smith’s novel, Debbie Isitt’s script too often separates the worlds of human and dog. Rather than a playful interaction between the Dearlys and their beloved Dalmatians, we often find the humans conversing at one side of the stage, before turning our attention to their pets at the other side. Shamefully, I find myself yearning for the magic of the Disney film, where Pongo is constantly chatting to Roger Dearly, changes the time on the clock and grabs his lead ready for a walk. This separation between the two universes isn’t helped by the fact that the pace is rather slow, as though the cast are still getting to grips with the script.
The enigmatic, malevolent Cruella de Vil is the central, threatening figure of the piece. Gloria Onitiri is resplendent in a glamourous wardrobe of black silk and ubiquitous flowing furs, reflecting her extravagant, manic portrayal of this classic villain. Her powerful, belting voice makes light work James Frewer’s songs, although perhaps deserves something more than the discordant jazz numbers and their simplistic lyrics.
The greatest success of this production lies in its sweet and silly appeal to all ages, the childlike charm of toy cars zooming around the set and the interaction between audience and actors. Whilst the mad-cap nature of the Dalmatian chase becomes a little chaotic at times – the chase sequences lack the clever choreography we’ve come to expect – The One Hundred and One Dalmatians is an entertaining and accessible production for all ages.
The Hundred and One Dalmatians is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 13 January 2018 and tickets can be found here.