cruella

A giraffe skin clothed Kym Marsh as Cruella with Charles Brunton, left, as Casper and Danny Hendrix as Jasper. Pictures: Johan Persson

101 Dalmations

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham

****

Goodies knocking spots off a baddy from the malevolent side of evil in a battle of life or death, death being the second prize, so will the goodies win . . . by the skin of their teeth, perhaps? What more could you ask for a family show? And to top it all it’s wonderful, tail-wagging, bum-sniffing fun.

All right, that last bit might be a bit of a niche trait among human pets, but the dogs, all 101 of them, know what we are talking about, and, after all they are the stars, and, tails and bums aside, it is great fun for people as well as the canine community.

Based on Dodie Smith’s serialised 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, this version of the classic story is full of charm and adventure with nothing to frighten the younger humans in the audience.

It’s the latest in a long line of adaptations for stage, film and TV, with the Disney 1961 cartoon classic still the standout, and Zinnie Harris’s adaptation keeps it simple and straightforward and easy to follow. The age guidance is five, so to make it a real family show, Johnny McKnight’s book does the job with nothing to frighten the horses, or dogs in this case,

The wonderful Douglas Hodge, better known as a Broadway and West End star, is also a talented songwriter and has produced some great music and songs, we even get some four part harmonies in there and some funny and witty lyrics at times, but the real stars of the show has to be Jimmy Grimes’s cute puppets, which cleverly, as in the book, are given their own voice and their own songs with Linford Johnson the puppeteer and splendid voice of Pongo, the daddy dalmation, and Emma Thornett as mummy dalmation, Perdi. 

couple

Samuel Thomas as Tom tied in knots with Jessie Elland's Danielle thanks to Emma Thornett's Perdi, left and Linford Johnson's Pongo.

The pair sport fine voices, and it is one of the great theatrical illusions from War Horse onwards that within minutes of a puppet character and puppeteer appearing on stage the puppeteer becomes invisible and the puppet takes on a life of its own in the minds of an audience.

Their owners, or their pets depending upon whether you sport a tail or not, are unemployed fashion designer, bundle of nerves, I should shut up now, Tom given a something will turn up optimism by Samuel Thomas and the more down to earth, feet on the ground Danielle, steadying the ship in the hands of Jessie Elland.

And then there were the 15 puppet puppies Perdi produced with lives of their own to contend with, that is until they were all captured on behalf of Cruella de Vil as the basis of her intended new creation – dalmation skin haute couture.

A requirement of this new fashion being a ready supply of dalmation puppies, or, to be more accurate, their skins, hence every dalmation puppy in the area going missing overnight.

It is a deliciously, OTT performance by Kym Marsh as the leather-clad Cruella. It heads into panto territory at times – Oh, no it doesn’t! Oh, yes . . . (Oh, come on, really? Don’t start) – and that lady can sing with a really great voice, displaying real jazzy power and style with the likes of Für Fur to bring the curtain down on Act 1.

She is a glorious Cruella, evil as they come, join the letters of her surname if you don’t believe me (de vil . . .) but always with a twinkle and a sense of fun with wonderful timing, such as her put down of Crocs.

quartet

Tom and Danielle with the now reformed Jasper, left, and Casper with the real live, breathing and not talking, tail-waggging 101st Dalmation puppy 

Doing her bidding in permanent fear of their lives, are her nephews Casper, played by Charles Brunton and Jasper played by Danny Hendrix. The pair are, should we say, intellectually challenged, but, as they will never understand that, we’ll just call them dim, as in lights out most of the time.

Again, we are into bumbling panto or even CBBC comedy duos, which is safely in the comfort zone of the young audience who are the real target of this production.

Supporting them is a hard working nine strong ensemble who act as scene shifters, extras, puppy puppeteers and dog walkers for everything from poodles to great danes – and let’s not forget a trio of cats

Then we get the pubs song section where various criminal enterprises and dishonesty are examined with a surprise appearance of a certain Worzel Gummidge haired ex-Prime Minister providing a moment of laughter.

If we are picky the second act is perhaps a little long  it has its moments, such as Cruella’s exploding car, and the twilight barking from the ramparts of De Vil’s mansion, but for the target audience, a trim would not go amiss – that being said my grandchildren, eight and 13 thought it was great, so who am I to complain.

The set (David Woodhead) is simple, roll on roll off scenery from table and settee for Tom and Danielle’s home to cages for Cruella’s dungeon, and lighting (James Whiteside) does the job without fuss, while costumes (Sarah Mercadé), or to be more specific, Cruella’s costumes, a giraffe affair and stage filling spotted number, were fantastic.

Musical Director and conductor Leigh Thompson led an excellent six piece band, who sounded much bigger than they were in a production which set a fine tone for a family show, not too fancy and flashy, no big special effects, just a simple story, well told, well acted, tugging a little at the heartstrings and, it did its job admiably, it was fun for adults and the youngsters lapped it up. The dogs will be let out to 06-07-24.

Roger Clarke

02-07-24 

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