Following their acclaimed production of Legally Blonde, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are continuing their 90th anniversary season with the premiere of a brand new musical adaptation of 101 Dalmatians. Originally due to premiere in 2020, it has taken two further years for this classic tale (or should that be tail?) to be seen. But was it worth the wait?
Based on Dodie Smith’s 1956 childrens novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the story is perhaps best remembered for Disney’s adaptation which has been a staple among children for generations. The story of two fertile Dalmatians whose puppies are kidnapped by the villainous Cruella De Vil, recent movie remake Cruella may have kept the action in the past but this new adaptation has been completely modernised. This version is not the 101 Dalmatians you think you know. So buckle in. It could be a bumpy ride!
Before I get into it, I feel I should mention a disclaimer. Much has been said about this production already, with reviews from fellow critics really split down the middle, and while I am quite conflicted on my thoughts on this show overall, people may react to this like I have just kidnapped and caged 99 puppies. All I can do is be honest while keeping it constructive and hopefully being as fair as possible. So with that in mind, let’s break it down into The Good, The Bad and The Puppy.
The first thing to talk about with this production is the gorgeous staging. Being greeted by the shows title in huge letters (with the genius touch of a dog collar for the zero in 101), it creates a fantastic first impression. The beautiful set design from Colin Richmond is versatile in its approach, transforming the stage to a more sinister setting with secrets bursting from various parts to represent Hell Hall. The action isn’t all confined to the stage either, with cast members regularly walking through the audience, reminiscent of another pet themed musical I can think of.
Anyone who has been to Regent’s Park (or as we should call it for this, Regent's Bark) Open Air Theatre knows how beautiful and atmospheric shows there can be, particularly in the second act of the evening show when it gets darker and the lighting can be used to full effect. 101 Dalmatians is no exception, with the lighting design from Howard Hudson truly fabulous to witness.
Recent shows like The Life of Pi have set standards pretty high when it comes to puppet design, and the brilliant design by Toby Olié doesn't disappoint. From the moment the two parent dogs Pongo and Perdi enter on to the stage through the audience is awe-inspiring. However, the choices of the multiple performers playing these dogs can be jarring at all, particularly when one separates from the body of the dog to sing a song. It also kept being pointed out to me how dodgy it looked having a human with a tail attached to the body of the dog… but let’s keep this innocent for now. However, the actual design is one of the greatest elements of this production.
There’s one thing that really lets this production down and I’m sorry to say that is the writing. The stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris now has a book by Johnny McKnight, and it just doesn’t seem to work. Dialogue falls flat, jokes made audience members cringe as opposed to laugh and the whole thing feels very disjointed in its tone. I was left wondering who exactly this production was aimed at? Extremely childish lines and far too much toilet humour was mixed with a smattering of adult jokes and scenes where it gets very dark. If this was to be aimed at a younger market, perhaps the references to Cruella pushing her sister under a train could be taken out? The biggest problem with 101 Dalmatians is it doesn’t seem to know what it is and who its target audience are. Had it decided this firmly and written the show with that squarely in mind, this would have been a much more cohesive production.
The music and lyrics by Douglas Hodge are also problematic. Aside from the odd earworm and 1 or 2 exceptions, the majority of numbers are fairly unmemorable. The standout number in the show is undoubtedly Cruella’s big act 1 closing number ‘Für Fur’ –think ‘Defying Gravity’ but with skinning puppies alive instead. Performed beautifully and with gorgeous music, it is sadly let down by pedestrian and nonsensical lyrics. This seems to be the problem with the music in general – while they can be pleasant, the lyrics fail to match this level, with “If you Google my Facetime, I’ll Twitter your Yahoo” up there with the worst lyrics from Diana. The ’Dogtra’ sequence in act 2 did provoke a big smile though that may be more to do with the appearance of various dog breeds as opposed to the song itself, while ‘What The Bleep’ performed by four child actors as puppies was delightful in its weirdness. One of the strongest numbers was the finale ‘One Hundred And One’ which felt one of the most well put together of the show – it’s just a shame this couldn’t be repeated earlier in the show.
The cast is led by Kate Fleetwood as Cruella. While she is a wonderful actress in herself and does the best she can, the material lets her down. Playing the role like Priti Patel if she was in The Only Way is Essex, Cruella has been revised to be a vaping, pouting influencer, and it just doesn’t work. While there is nothing wrong with Cruella being modernised, they could have had her as the CEO of a company – perhaps a funny twist on a big name one (Cruber?) instead. Her as an influencer feels ill-thought out and just falls flat. There is no need for lines such as “I’m completely legit. I’ve got a blue tick on Twitter”, and as for the line "Big stick energy", a part of me genuinely died inside.
Danny Collins and Emma Lucia are highlights as the voices of Pongo and Perdi, while George Bukhari and Jonny Weldon make a delightful double act as Jasper and Casper. While relatively underused, Eric Stroud and Karen Fishwick are lovely as the dogs owners (or pets according to them) Dominic and Danielle. A sweet standout involves the four puppies Button, Lucky, Patch and Spud, played by a revolving cast of talented young performers. An incredible ensemble cast ensure that stage is covered with sheer talent, with group numbers featuring impressive choreography from Liam Steel.
While audience reaction was mixed and relatively muted throughout the production, the one moment that unified everyone in their delight was the gorgeous moment a real puppy is brought on to the stage at the shows climax. While you can understand why 101 real dogs on that stage may not end well, this was a sweet moment and a clever way to end the show on a high.
I have to say I really admire the bold approach that has been taken with this version of 101 Dalmatians - after all what would theatre be without risks? It saddens me to say overall it just didn’t work, for me at least. I was incredibly excited when this production was announced and bought tickets for its original 2020 run (before I’d even created the website). I wanted to love it. I really did. It was just hard to ignore the elements that felt like a misfire. There are some really fantastic elements to this production such as the staging but they are let down by underwhelming writing and some barking mad choices. I feel like there is a solid show in here somewhere but it’s not quite there yet. I couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t quite ready for the stage and perhaps more workshopping would have got it to the level it deserves.
To say I disliked 101 Dalmatians would be harsh. It’s fairer to say I was disappointed by it. I was rooting for it to succeed, and in its first 5 minutes I was blown away by the staging. It just never managed to live up to that initial buzz and regularly fell flat. Looking around at the audiences reactions, there were people who were really loving the show, especially children. If you are thinking of seeing the show, I would still encourage you to go and not let this review put you off – that is never something I’d want to do with my reviews, even with the most testing of shows. Theatre is subjective after all, and you may be surprised.
101 Dalmatians is playing at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until August 28th . Tickets available here
Photos by Mark Senior