101 Dalmatians – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Reviewer: James Garrington

Book: Johnny McKnight

Music and Lyrics: Douglas Hodge

Writer: Dodie Smith

Director: Bill Buckhurst

Although originally written as a novel by Dodie Smith in 1956, it was undoubtedly the movie adaptations that brought 101 Dalmatians to the attention of the wider public. First adapted by Disney as a wonderful cartoon in 1961, a film that will live in the hearts of many people of a certain age, it was introduced to a whole new audience by the subsequent 1990s live action remake of the story and its subsequent sequel. As it often is with these things, each remake comes with its own small variations of the plot and characters and this one has Tom, a freelance fashion designer and owner of Perdi marrying Danielle, who works at the dogs’ home and who’s taken a shine to the abandoned Pongo. Tom gets an offer to supply a design for the Haus of de Vil, owned by Cruella, and when she discovers that Perdi is pregnant, Cruella dreams of wearing a coat made from Dalmatian puppy skin. Tom refuses to sell their puppies to her, so she gets her orphaned nephews Casper and Jasper to kidnap them, leaving Pongo and Perdi to try to get them back.

101 Dalmatians contains one of the great arch-villainess roles in Cruella de Vil, and here we have Kym Marsh, who is sharing the role on this tour with Faye Tozer. This is a role that Marsh was absolutely made for, owning the stage from her first entrance to the finale. She has quite a few numbers to sing too, and she belts them out with gusto reminding us just how good a voice she has, along with a wicked laugh that would make many a pantomime villain proud. She throws herself wholeheartedly into the comedy in the role, happy to not take herself too seriously either. Look out for Marsh taking on more roles like this.

Equally happy to not take themselves at all seriously are hapless nephews Danny Hendrix (Jasper) and Charles Brunton (Casper), who bring laughs with them whenever they appear. Trying to stand up to their aunt Cruella, while being simultaneously scared of her, they’re not really suited to a life of crime, but they do like a cute puppy. Samual Thomas gives us a well-judged Tom, stoic in the face of constant rejection then launching into hyper-excitement when he gets the call from Cruella asking to meet him, with Jessie Elland as Danielle, slightly earnest until she sees a dog when her heart seems to visibly melt.

Of course, every production of 101 Dalmatians needs to have the eponymous canine stars and here they are puppets designed by Jimmy Grimes and led by Linford Johnson as Pongo and Emma Thornett as Perdi. Johnson and Thornett carry a lot of the story and they do it well, both in good voice when they get their numbers to sing and giving their puppets a human feel. They’re accompanied by a veritable army of other puppet characters, voiced and operated by the ensemble showing that when the humans can’t deal with something that needs doing, the animals will work together to somehow make it happen – and on that point, look out for the wonderful cat. The puppets look great, and on the whole move well too.

David Woodhead has designed a set that allows the action to flow nicely, and Sarah Mercadé has come up with some fantastic costumes for Cruella. Douglas Hodge’s score contains some good numbers, and even if there’s nothing that’s likely to become a memorable classic, they serve their purpose well in the context of the show. Lyrics are witty, including one about how life can be easier if you break the law or are corrupt, in which a certain ex-Prime Minister makes an appearance. There are a couple of good numbers for Cruella to let rip with some big ballads too.

There are no deep and meaningful themes here – though you could find things about co-operation being better than conflict, and trusting your instincts – but it’s a good fun show. Leave any thoughts of high drama at the door, dig out your inner child and take it for what it is, and there’s an enjoyable, innocuous evening out to be had.

Runs until 6 July 2024 and on tour

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Comic canine capers

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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