Review: The Hundred and One Dalmatians (Birmingham Repertory Theatre)

Dodie Smith’s family favourite is adapted for the stage by Debbie Isitt

Dodie Smith’s much-loved children’s story has been a huge success as an animation and a Hollywood movie and now it comes to the stage as Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Christmas show.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians tells the tale of the evil Cruella de Vil and her attempts to create a new fur coat by stealing dalmatian puppies – but she doesn’t take into account the puppies’ proud parents who are intent on rescuing their litter.

Director Tessa Walker’s decision to use puppetry for the dogs and other animals in the show is an interesting one. In one way it works brilliantly, ensuring the characters are physically arresting and versatile. Created by Jimmy Grimes, who worked on the National Theatre’s War Horse, the creatures not only look like dalmatians they also closely replicate their movements.

The puppetry also enables the production to feature some wonderful moments including the opening scene in which the stage slowly fills with dog walkers who look just like their dogs and the famous scene in which the dalmatian parents Pongo and Missis bark out their ‘missing puppies’ alert across London so it can be passed on by other dogs across the country as a call to locate the dognapped animals.

But opting for puppetry over people does also slightly disassociate the audience from the dogs as characters which, when they are so central to the story, risks reducing the emotional involvement with the story.

There’s certainly no shortage of emotion in Gloria Onitiri‘s Cruella. Imperious in her high heels and white furs, she commands the stage whenever she steps onto it. Whether she’s raging, scheming or begging, it’s all done with plenty of drama – this is one Cruella to be reckoned with.

The humans whose household the dalmatians reside in, Mr Dearly (Morgan Philpott) and Mrs Dearly (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) are suitably nice. They meet, fall in love, look after their dogs, are distressed when the animals disappear and then delighted when they reappear. You can’t help but like them.

Much of the success of this show lies in its comedy though and the ‘thugs’ who dognap the dalmatians – the Badduns played by Luke Murphy and Lewis Griffin. They are loveable rogues who prefer to watch a bit of dancing on television over skinning puppies. The duo are also adept at playing the audience and bring a touch of pantomime to the show, particularly when they appear in the auditorium searching for the puppies.

Designer Jamie Vartan has created a hugely imaginative set in which the foreground becomes the Dearlys’ home, the barn prison for the puppies and other interiors, while in the background there are small houses and roads on which small cars can appear as a tableau. There’s also plenty of space to fill with puppies when necessary.
The Hundred and One Dalmatians certainly isn’t the easiest story to stage but The Rep’s production is ambitious, warm and funny with lots of positive messages about the strength of family and the bonds which tie us together. Ideal Christmas family viewing.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians plays Birmingham Rep until 13 January.

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