sat 20/07/2024

101 Dalmatians, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - puppets rule in patchy musical | reviews, news & interviews

101 Dalmatians, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - puppets rule in patchy musical

101 Dalmatians, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - puppets rule in patchy musical

Long-aborning musical still has a leg or two further to go

Close (no, not Glenn) and a partial cigar: Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil Images by Mark Senior

There's further training, shall we say, still needed on 101 Dalmatians, the much-delayed show that marks the second consecutive musical this summer at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, following their revisionist Legally Blonde.

A busy, bustling title that takes ages to come into focus, Timothy Sheader's production feels like a work-in-progress, even if the puppetry work from the busy Toby Olié (concurrently represented by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) as it is could scarcely be bettered. 

Is the piece worth pursuing further? You bet, not least because of the enduring potency of a story, first penned in 1956 by Dodie Smith, that has spawned countless spinoffs and that happens very aptly to be set in Regent's Park. And when now as ever one wonders where new composing talent might lie, the project brings to attention the offstage gifts of the Tony-winning actor Douglas Hodge, the onetime star of La Cage aux Folles and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory here delivering up one of three musicals to have corralled his skills as composer-lyricist. (Dalmatians is both the newest of the trio and also the first to receive a full production.)'101 Dalmatians' in Regent's ParkA talent who knows his Jerry Herman from his Cardi B (the latter a self-professed influence), Hodge has penned a likeable score that also put me in mind at various times both of British staples like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and, rather surprisingly, James Taylor: the rightly-reprised "Bury That Bone", plaintively sung by Tom Peters as the homeless Captain, has a Taylor-adjacent twang that suggests its potential as a takeaway standard. "Litterbugs" neatly chronicles the proliferation of pups with lyric and melodic charm, allowing Olié and his creations (and onstage puppeteers) to do the rest. 

Elsewhere, though, the score, like the show as a whole, is lost in a whirligig of busy-ness that suggests streamlining as the first order of the day for material that on paper at least sounds like a Matilda-in-waiting: we all know where that glorious musical has got to. This show has an equivalent Trunchbull in the figure you love to fear – namely, Cruella de Vil, a signature screen part for Glenn Close and Emma Stone here taken by a firm-voiced Kate Fleetwood, whose musical theatre chops (London Road, High Society) sometimes get forgotten amidst her fine work in the classical theatre. 

Looking rather like Cher in her prime, and with waist-like hair to match, Fleetwood cuts an imposing presence, to be sure, and she gets the obligatory power anthem of most big musicals post-Wicked: this one, primed to close act one with a jolt, is wittily titled "Für Fur" (geddit?) and follows a Lionel Bart-inflected ditty about criminals with a paean to C de V's all-stops-out wickedness. "Bring me more puppies," she commands, in fantastical thrall to the coat of her dreams made possible by all these pooches.101 Dalmatians ensemble at Regent's ParkAn influencer (yawn) and apparent Brexiteer (yawn again), the character is conceived in Johnny McKnight's book (from a stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris) as a rabidly pro-British connoisseuse of, yes, the Black & White Ball, though you might well wonder what Truman Capote might have made of this same material. Indeed, Fleetwood's performance is a particular marvel when one ponders a part conceived halfway, though not entirely, on the way to high camp. In context, the set-upon Pongo and Perdi are fated to play second-fiddle to this turbocharged, panto-worthy presence, though it's fun to see that canine pair given simultaneously human and puppet dimensions.

The political resonances allow for a metaphoric embrace of the other, and the necessity of difference to cut against what gets derided as "the migrant migraine" by the chavvy heroine we've come to cheer and boo at once. Liam Steel's choreography doesn't imprint dogs upon the musical theatre landscape for keeps the way Gillian Lynne did back in the day in Cats, and both Colin Richmond's sets and Katrina Lindsay's costumes feel as if they might be more at home (and a comfier fit) indoors. But I for one wouldn't be surprised if this premiere marks far from the last – what? – woof from a show not yet quite there but giving off every sign of continued life with a bit of care and grooming. After all, if cats can have nine lives, don't these Dalmatians deserve at least one more?

Kate Fleetwood's part has been conceived halfway, though not entirely, on the way to high camp


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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