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'101 Dalmatians' review — this fluffy adaptation has brilliant moments but lacks bite

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Regent’s Park’s second musical of the summer is the Covid-delayed 101 Dalmatians, a brand-new stage version of Dodie Smith’s beloved children’s book. It’s a particularly apt choice since Smith’s fictional family live in Regent’s Park, and indeed the opening number lovingly celebrates the verdant north London spot.

Elsewhere, however, this new adaptation – by Zinnie Harris, with a book from Johnny McKnight and score by actor Douglas Hodge – diverges significantly from the source material, and from the indelible 1961 Disney film. Cruella de Vil becomes a thoroughly modern monster: a vape-smoking social media influencer with a nasty line in attention-seeking, right-wing trolling; her popular posts include “The migrant migraine”.

When she sees Dalmatians Pongo and Perdi, the smitten pets of lovebirds Danielle and Dominic, she demands to use them in a shoot for her book cover. (Depressingly believable title: Black and White Values.) But when she loses her temper with the dogs and the video goes viral, instead of getting "cancelled" her follower count actually goes up. How can she keep feeding the outrage machine? Create a coat out of Dalmatian puppies to wear to the Black and White Ball.

Of course, the big question going into this show is how on earth the adaptors will manage the dauntingly high animal count of the title. The answer is: in various ways, with varying levels of success. Main pair Perdi and Pongo are beautifully crafted puppets (by Toby Olié) with hinged legs and concertina necks, each operated by two people. There are lovely funny moments, as when they meet and politely request to sniff each other’s behinds, but you never quite forget the humans, as you do with the astonishing puppets in Life of Pi; the performances always feel slightly detached.

The puppies are disembodied heads popping up around the cramped flat – sweet but like little pencil-toppers rather than actual canines. More effective is the second-half use of a quartet of children as puppies, giving them more concrete characterisation and an emotional connection with their lost parents; the excellent youngsters on my night were Charlie Man-Evans, Rhiya Rasalingam, Charlie McGonagle and Hadlee Snow.

But the biggest audience response by far went to the (spoiler alert) actual Dalmatian puppy who was carried on at the end, adorably wriggly, bestowing ecstatic wet kisses upon the actors, and just so much more tangible than any other attempt at bringing Smith’s doggy heroes to life. I’m still a huge fan of the current wave of puppetry in London theatre, but in this particular case, nothing quite lived up to real life.

In fact, the production overall still feels like a work-in-progress. Hodge supplies a pleasant but immediately forgettable jazz-pop-folk pastiche score. My companion felt the show could have ditched the songs altogether; I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I would certainly excise several. There are strange tonal lurches, like going right from a big, vampy Cruella number to a sad ballad from a mum worried her pup is going to die.

There are too many characters as well. Not just the numerous Dalmatians, but the undercooked Danielle and Dominic (despite nice efforts from Eric Stroud and Karen Fishwick), Cruella and her doltish nephews, homeless dog leader the Captain (a strong but underused Tom Peters), a helpful cat (and a whole superfluous subplot about the dog-cat feud), a bunch of angry Brexiteers and criminals in a pub – Boris Johnson, naturally, among them – plus other owners robbed of their pets. The stage is constantly heaving.

Amidst all of that, Cruella emerges as the most vivid character, but the hashtag gags soon pall. She’s more pitiable than scary, desperate to be liked – and gets likes – rather than Smith’s imperious, ruthless fur-fiend. It makes a mystical baddie merely pedestrian. Kate Fleetwood fares best when Cruella goes full cackling supervillain in the latter stages: she relishes the campery, and director Timothy Sheader hands her some brilliant graphic novel moments, like her eyes flying out of their sockets while her car tears apart.

Katrina Lindsay has great fun with the costuming, too, giving Cruella extravagant fur collars, leather coats, a Union Jack dress, and terrifying contoured make-up. Colin Richmond’s set is too basic though, using the block letters of the title in every scene. Again the climax is the best, when we get an electrified cage and huge bloody saws at Hell Hall.

There are flashes of creative brilliance here, such as a wonderful song-and-dance interpretation of the Twilight Barking, and there’s a pervasive plucky British spirit that is very endearing. In that sense, as well as in some of its presentation (see: those giant letters), it’s rather like Matilda, but it crucially lacks Tim Minchin’s sensational score, a slickness in the staging, and some real darkness.

Instead, it’s all rather fluffy, constantly handing down moral lessons: be thankful for your home, find your voice, don’t be a hater, we’re stronger together, and ending on a pro-refugee note. Smith, like Dahl, never coddled her young readers to that extent. This adaptation is all bark and no bite.

101 Dalmatians at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to 28 August. Book 101 Dalmatians tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: 101 Dalmatians at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (Photo by Mark Senior)

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