101 Dalmatians at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

I might have attempted, if I were engaged enough in proceedings, a headcount of the final scene of 101 Dalmatians to see if there really were one hundred and one ‘Dalmatians’. If, however, we are talking about Dalmatians, without inverted commas, there is one – if you’ve seen The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it’s a bit like the scene when an actual dog appears: oohs and aahs reverberate around the auditorium. But unlike Curious, this production doesn’t have a couple of hours of utterly mesmerising stuff going on before the Very Cute and Adorable Actual Puppy arrives.

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil with Pongo and Perdi puppeteed by Yana Penrose, Emma Lucia, Danny Collins and Ben Thompson.
Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil with Pongo and Perdi puppeteed by Yana Penrose, Emma Lucia, Danny Collins and Ben Thompson. Photo Mark Senior.

The puppetry for the adult dogs, Pongo (Danny Collins and Ben Thompson) and Perdi (Emma Lucia and Yana Penrose) consists of half-bodies whose front legs don’t so much walk but clunk around the stage somewhat unconvincingly, and whose rear legs are those of the actors who speak the dogs’ lines. The dogs display incredible flexibility, occasionally becoming momentarily disembodied before coming back together again, as though they were Lego pieces pulled apart and re-attached. If it’s great puppetry at the theatre you’re after, I take this opportunity to recommend Life of PI and Disney’s The Lion King.

Puppetry isn’t the only aspect that could do with some tightening, as it were. This version of Cruella de Vil (Kate Fleetwood) is borderline saccharine relative to most antagonists in most children’s stories, and when she insists on saying she will do certain things and – albeit at least partly for external reasons – doesn’t follow through on her promises, she may as well be running for Parliament. Cruella, whatever she was, wasn’t terrifying, which meant muted applause from the audience when she gets her comeuppance.

Mind you, on balance she deserved what she got, if anything for calling her nephews Jasper (George Bukhari) and Casper (Jonny Weldon), “a waste of oxygen” – couldn’t she have found other people to do her bidding if they were so incompetent? In an attempt to bring the story up-to-date, this Cruella is a social media influencer, and the botched attempt the production makes at demonising influencers is a peculiar narrative choice, though perhaps there is something to be said about Cruella’s Instagram (or whichever platform she uses) portraying a kind of life that is far removed from the vacuity and loneliness of her reality.

According to the programme, there are twenty-three musical numbers. I didn’t hear any of them being hummed by anybody as the audience filed out afterwards (and it is a reasonable but lengthy walk, by central London standards, to the Tube) – there just aren’t any memorable songs, even if the last one, ‘One Hundred and One’, is uplifting enough to underline the show’s happy ending. Not all of the action is on the stage itself – on point of principle, I refused to swivel round and at one point found myself staring at a largely empty stage while dialogue carried on behind me.

The choreography (Liam Steel) isn’t much to write home about either – it was pleasant enough, but could, in all honesty, have been more energetic. And what were those jokes about spinal cord injuries all about? They weren’t offensive, at least not to me, but merely unfunny. By portraying the fight against Cruella as a team effort, there is no singular superhero protagonist, which would be fine, except here, everyone except Cruella is so (relatively) underwritten that one would be forgiven for rooting for the baddie.

I take the point a fellow patron made as we were leaving the theatre – for her, the show was very relevant, peppered as it was with some subtle, and not so subtle, topical references to current affairs. The show’s conclusion could be interpreted as preaching a sermon in support of helping refugees and asylum seekers. If only the rest of the show had similar levels of spirited passion, it might have been a more satisfying evening. A dog’s dinner, and a rather bland one at that.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

When infamous Cruella de Vil (Kate Fleetwood) sets her sights on a new Dalmatian fur coat, there’s trouble ahead for Pongo, Perdi and their adorable litter of puppies. Based on the classic story set in the heart of Regent’s Park, this new musical adaptation, packed with puppetry, is perfect for a summer’s day.

101 DALMATIANS
12 July 2022 – 28 August 2022
https://openairtheatre.com/

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