‘Slinky & glamorous Kate Fleetwood is a perfect Cruella’: 101 DALMATIANS – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre ★★★★

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Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London – until 28 August 2022

Wooof! The OAT’s new show, bounding and cavorting along under the direction of that amiable alfresco showman Timothy Sheader, rolls over (with quite a lot of success) to make you give it a tummy-rub and fondle its ears. Toby Olié,  master-puppeteer, puts the dogs, Perdita and Pongo each under the care of two handlers (the rearward one bending in spotty trousers, well up for a bum-sniff) and their heads, tails, legs and wags are eerily, skilfully, thoughtfully made expressive. The 99 puppies are represented by adorable little heads, again in agile human hands, popping up everywhere. And for the dramatic escape scenes four are represented in voice by real children of the OAT’s Young Company.

Multiple other dogs are represented with economical brio by the quick-changing ensemble and often roam the auditorium, to the ecstasy of children and the occasional parent who took the trouble to dress in dalmatian-print. There are Scotties in kilts, Afghans in flowing locks, a tap dancing pink poodle. Towering over them all is the noble sad old Captain, Tom Peters singing the two best songs in the show, all the sorrows of life encapsulated in the scent of lost loved ones and the memory of a buried bone. Which, in a real sense, we are all searching for in life, no?

Dogs we see are trustworthy, stand together, pass messages of danger and support through the “worldwide woof” and the Twilight Barking. Humans on the other hand are shamingly fallible. The struggling but loving owners, Dominic and Danielle, have not much of a clue beyond warmheartedness.

Cruella de Vil has, until they rebel, two hopeless nephews under her thumb (George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon, very funny) and she herself is, of course absolutely evil. Apart from wanting to kill puppies for a coat at a social ball which showcases “who’s in and who’s thin”, she is an Instagram influencer. Excellent choice for a villainess, allowing lots of choruses of “Share, share! Like! Like! Comment!” and the waving of phones in the background. Kate Fleetwood, slinky and glamorous, is a perfect Cruella: powerfully melodious, enthusiastically nasty,  handling rock ballads with glee and jeering with fabulous menace at “welfare whingers” and outsiders – “British dogs for British People! Take Back Control!” No trouble spotting the liberal values in this show, kids!

The show accelerates, after a shakier start, until by the end you definitely throw it a well-deserved marrowbone: there’s  a “no-pup-left-behind” drama in the snowstorm escape, a helpful cat who forgives past chases to help out and exhorts the pups: “Young – make your voices heard, claim your territory!” (another message). There’s a wonderful exploding car for Cruella (Liam Steel’s choreography and movement direction is as fine as Olie’s puppetmastery). And (third big liberal message) at the end the broke young couple realise we all must “open your hearts, open your doors” and accept hundreds of puppies taking refuge. But  just as any far-right border curmudgeons might be rolling their eyes at the Paddingtonesque urging to virtue and wondering what Truss ’n Sunak will say, our cunning director brings on a REAL DALMATIAN PUPPY. And a great British awwwwhhhhhh! rises over the darkening trees.

A brand-new musical is the toughest of risks, because however good the tunes and lyrics they’re unfamiliar: unless every word in every chorus is preternaturally clear,  which is a big ask outdoors,  some of the fun gets lost in the attempt at concentration. That  is why juke-box shows are so popular: we all have a running start and are inwardly humming along .  The show’s creator Douglas Hodge (better known as a fine actor) is also a good musician, folksinger and composer, but the only running-start he has here is that we know about Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians and the Disney film version (here the book is Johnny McKnight’s, the adaptation Zinnie Harris’).

But our Doug can turn a lovely tune (especially in the more folk-y mode) and he has some grand lyrics. Captain’s songs are best of all,  but  there are also some lovely doggy choral reflections like the necessity to “turn round three times before you sit down”,  and some inventive staccato panting.   Fleetwood’s Cruella numbers are sometimes  fine too, especially when “triggered” by failure and isolation  she laments that her only friend is enmity.    But kapow!  in a coup de theatre, she had to go.  Children and puppies can head home to sleep safe.

www.openairtheatre.com  to 28th August

rating four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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