101 Dalmatians – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Debbie Isitt from the book by Dodie Smith

Director: Tessa Walker

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Although Dodie Smith was already a successful playwright and novelist, it was probably the Disney adaptation of her 1956 children’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians that brought her work to the wider public eye. The story of the evil Cruella de Vil stealing Dalmatian puppies for their fur and the heroic attempts of a network of dogs to rescue the pups caught Walt Disney’s imagination. Later, of course, it would spawn a live action version and various other spinoffs.

In this adaptation, Mr. and Mrs. Dearly live blissfully with Pongo and Missis, the two dogs who brought them together while out walking. Their happiness is complete when Missis becomes pregnant. However, the fur-obsessed Cruella de Vil invites them to dinner with the intention of bartering for their pups so that her furrier husband, Horace, can make her a special coat.

The Dearlys refuse Cruella, so she arranges for the puppies, once born, to be stolen and taken to Hell Hall with others her husband has bought where they are looked after by lazy crooks, Jasper and Saul Baddun.

Distraught, Pongo and Missis ask for help via the Twilight Bark, a communications network of dogs all over England. They learn where the pups are and set off to rescue them.

This is an utterly charming production. The mood is set from the outset when we see dog owners with their highly individual puppet dogs out walking and greeting each other. The amount of thought and careful design by puppet designer Jimmy Grimes and the onstage puppeteers ensure that the animals are always believable in their movements and in their conversations with each other.

In fact, all the elements come together harmoniously: Debbie Isitt’s adaptation is largely faithful and is built upon by Tessa Walker’s direction to produce a piece that, full of childlike wonder, is never childish. Jamie Vartan’s multi-levelled and multi-viewpoint design enables the action to move swiftly from location to location, supported by the shifting soundscape of Emma Laxton and James Frewer. And Cruella’s car is an absolute joy to behold, brought to noisy and swaggering life by puppeteers acting as bonnet, mudguards, doors – even fluffy dice and exhaust – complementing Cruella’s character quite perfectly.

And it is Gloria Onitiri as Cruella who dominates every scene she’s in. Larger-than-life and melodramatic, she personifies evil but never slips into pantomime territory: indeed, she is quite chilling when she tells the Badduns to get on with the slaughter of the pups (in song). It is testament to Onitiri that we find ourselves grudgingly feeling sorry for Cruella her as her world unravels and she is flung into the slough of despond. In a supremely well-judged performance, Onitiri is flawless.

Jo Servi is Horace, her long-suffering husband, trying desperately to keep her on this side of insanity. Servi also demonstrates his very fine singing voice during the Twilight Howl when he relays back messages to Pongo and Missis.

It is the skills of Oliver Wellington and Emma Thornett as the terribly well-spoken duo of Pongo and Missis that bring these dogs to life. One feels their despair and hope as they set off. The Twilight Howl, in which dogs all over the country join together to help locate the pups and report back is a fitting climax to the first act, leaving the audience drained and needing a break to recover their composure.

After the interval, the pace maybe slackens a little with a couple of scenes feeling a touch over-extended. Luke Murphy and Lewis Griffin as Saul and Jasper Baddun are nevertheless entertaining to watch and provide a comedic counterpoint to Cruella’s incessant wickedness as they find it increasingly difficult to carry out their orders.  As a result, the pups are rescued from under their noses, leading them on what is ultimately a wild Dalmatian chase across southern England. And it’s tissues at the ready again at the end when the Dearlys and the now 101 Dalmatians are reunited.

A classic adaptation of a classic book. This truly does deserve to run and run.

Runs until 13 January 2017 | Image: Graeme Braidwood

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Utterly Charming

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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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