101 DALMATIANS, Regent’s Park Open Air Theater
In theory, Dodie Smith’s beloved story of 101 Dalmatians is the perfect material for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Smith lived near Primrose Hill with her own Dalmatians and her story of the malevolent Cruella de Vil and the adventures of the dogs Pongo and Perdi matches the park’s atmospheric setting.
From the iconic version of Glenn Close to the modern incarnation of Emma Stone, Cruella de Vil is one of literature’s ultimate villains. Kate Fleetwood brings a modern, almost panto-esque take on the character, complete with a jeweled vape and towering Louboutin heels. No longer an aging fashion designer, she is the most modern creation: an anti-reawakening influencer and professional polemicist.
Fleetwood snickers appropriately, with sarcastic remarks about immigration and incels, she commands the scene as she struts around. George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon have fun as the unfortunate nephews of Cruella, Jasper and Casper, but are underwritten. Karen Fishwick and Eric Stroud provide the contrast as owners of rather bland “nice” dogs Danielle and Dominic.
Timothy Sheader’s creative direction fills the stage with, sometimes too much, activity. However, there are some really eye-catching moments and clever comic book-like effects such as Cruella’s eyes popping out of her head and an inspired slow-motion car crash where parts of the car detach and reassemble.
Recently seen in an immersive version of farm animal, Toby Olié’s brilliant puppet is once again in the spotlight. Perdi and Pongo dogs come to life through accordion necks, faces and softly designed hind legs played by actors with beautifully realistic spring-loaded tails. The movement of the two dogs is hyper-realistic and beautifully done by the puppeteers, with Yana Penrose and Danny Collins complementing the character of the dogs as their voices. The plethora of puppies are less successful, with floating heads looking more like finger puppets than real dogs.
The influence of social media on modern society is potentially a clever angle to take on the story. Today, controversy often rhymes with popularity. It’s horribly believable that the viral video of Cruella beating Pongo and Perdita increases her followers, but less so that it increases her popularity. As a nation of such dedicated dog lovers, that just doesn’t ring true.
It’s a family production and the kids will love it, but there’s not much to entertain the adults. A few more witty asides and a more engaging storyline would be welcome.
In musical version, there are some catchy tracks, like the more maniacal “Litterbugs”. Fleetwood, who has by far the loudest voice, receives the best songs, with the catchy finale of “Für Fur” and the sinister “I Can Smell Puppy”. However, overall the production has no impact. There are no noticeable earworms that stick with you after production ends and a few tracks such as “Dogma” sound disjointed and not tight enough.
Sarah Holmes’ costumes mostly rely on a monochromatic palette, with a few interesting designs like a hippie Afghan hound and a dyed-pink poodle. Cruella’s costumes are suitably extravagant, but it’s Carole Hancock’s outrageous wigs that are generating the most interest.
101 Dalmatians is a family show that will surely delight the youngest. Adults may have preferred more bite.
101 Dalmatians are at Regent’s Park Open Air Theater until August 28
Photo credit: Mark Senior