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101 Dalmatians musical at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre – review

Kate Fleetwood stars as a modern-day Cruella de Vil

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Kate Fleetwood in 101 Dalmatians
© Mark Senior

For the first time in almost four decades, the majestic Regent's Park Open Air Theatre is dedicating the prime slot of its annual season to a new musical. Fans of the 1961 Disney film will notice numerous differences between that version of 101 Dalmatians and this stage adaptation. Drawing its basis instead from the original Dodie Smith novel, the show is careful not to tread on the toes of any intellectual property and perhaps overcorrects for this, updating the action to a modern-day setting.

To this end, Cruella de Vil is reconceived as a vape-wielding social media influencer, possibly an easy target especially when divisive social commentator seems closer to what the creatives were aiming for. Though Kate Fleetwood was born for femme fatale villainy with her chiselled cheekbones and piercing belt, she is inhibited at every turn by the reinvention of her character; she is at least dressed stylishly for much of the show by Katrina Lindsay. Her efforts, alongside Colin Richmond's ingenious set, are the production's most redeeming features.

In answer to a long-standing curiosity that has accompanied the intrigue around this show's premiere, the Dalmatians are brought to the stage using vivid puppetry designed and directed by Toby Olié. The two adult dogs have opposable heads, torsos, and front paws while their hind legs are fulfilled by the two actors who provide their voices, Emma Lucia and Danny Collins. The canine depiction is disappointingly inconsistent, however, as the performers voicing them are bizarrely directed to sever themselves from the puppets at crucially poignant moments.

The puppies, meanwhile, are represented by disembodied heads and tails, lacking any limbs or a body which goes some of the way towards explaining why Cruella needs so many of them to fabricate a coat. Perhaps this is also why the puppies evoke a minimal emotional response until four of them are portrayed in the second act by endearing young performers (Charlie Man-Evans, Rhiya Rasalingam, Charlie McGonagle and Hadlee Snow at this performance). At their peak, I numbered the onstage puppies at only 93, but it seems admittedly unlikely the creatives would have gone to such trouble only to fall short by eight.

The score is courtesy of multi-award-winning actor Douglas Hodge and though it contains a handful of pleasant melodies and fleeting moments of wit, there are as many juvenile lyrics peppered with cringeworthy nods to social media culture. The most damning indictment of the material is that it lacks sophistication throughout and critically there is little with which to form any kind of emotional connection. With no clearly established protagonist, four-legged or otherwise, it is tempting to root for Cruella, the only developed character on stage. This isn't helped by the major tonality of her song "Für Fur" which is closer to a heroic ‘I want' song than it is a villainous backstory and is all the while suspiciously familiar of Frozen's "Love Is an Open Door".

The exceedingly brief arrival of a live Dalmatian puppy on stage prompts the most sincere audience reaction of the evening by some margin while also throwing into contrast how uninspiring everything has been up to this point. I give props to Timothy Sheader, the director at the helm of both this production and the venue itself, for committing to this piece of pre-pandemic programming at the heart of a season of big creative swings, but if they were hoping to find their next enduring commercial hit with 101 Dalmatians, they are surely barking up the wrong tree.