Birmingham Repertory Theatre – until 13 January 2018
“I want those puppies”… I can be accused of a fair few things but not a lack of adventurousness. It’s no secret that I am no great fan of puppets but I do try and test my prejudices on a fairly regular basis, something made spectacularly easy at this time of year as theatreland’s interpretation of family-friendly festive fare apparently means puppets for everyone!
The main reason though for traveling to Birmingham Rep for The Hundred and One Dalmatians was to see Cruella De Vil played by Gloria Onitiri, an actress who I’ve enjoyed following since the Avenue Q days more than a decade ago now. And she did not disappoint with this most iconic of characters, ferociously dramatic and unapologetically dark, she’s an absolute force of nature on this stage. The rest of the production around her didn’t quite land as effectively though, for me at least.
Director Tessa Walker has employed Jimmy Grimes to create some beautifully empathetic puppets for Pongo, Missis and their brood and it makes for some striking tableaux against the backdrop of Jamie Vartan’s set. But as effectively as they are manipulated (Oliver Wellington and Emma Thornett), embodying such key characters this way creates something of an emotional disconnect.
There’s more fun in the straightforwardly human antics of hapless henchmen (Lewis Griffin and Luke Murphy’s Badduns) or the larger-scale picture created by the gentle fun-poking at dog owners’ tendencies to look like their canine friends (or is it really the other way around…).
The Hundred and One Dalmatians is never less than watchable though and Debbie Isitt’s adaptation is markedly faithful to Dodie Smith’s original which feels most appropriate for this time of year, as does the matter-of-factly diverse cast (appropriate for any time of the year actually).