Countdown to Cruella – Behind The Scenes at 101 Dalmatians Pt 1

Every year at Christmas time, the Birmingham Rep offers something a little bit different to the traditional panto fare. This year it is bringing an eagerly awaited production of 101 Dalmatians to Birmingham and last week, on World Theatre Day, I was lucky enough to get behind the scenes at the Rep, to watch a rehearsal, chat to the cast and director Tessa Walker, designer Jamie Vartan and puppet director Jimmy Grimes. It was a fascinating look at what goes into the production of a Christmas classic.

In this first post I am going to bring you the chat with director Tessa and puppet director Jimmy, who talked about why they chose 101 Dalmatians for this year’s adaptation, and the problems of illustrating 101 dogs on stage.

Tessa Walker

After watching a rehearsal scene where all the dalmatians have escaped from their captors and are hiding in a barn, Tessa chatted to us about the production.

She explained that she had wanted to do the show for years, but the rights had only become available last year. Tessa loves the story as it is ‘such a beautiful story, a real classic but with room to make it contemporary’. She explained that in some ways the show is loyal to the Disney cartoon which is full of beautiful pastel coloured backdrops, with all the poise and elegance of the 1950s period. Tessa also loved that the story is something that couldn’t happen today ‘101 missing puppies would be all over Twitter.’

Tessa has previously worked with puppies on the adaptation of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and was keen to work with them again. She admits to being obsessed with how to make it work when there are such a lot of dogs, and only 12 cast members to work them all. The main difference in this production and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the scale, that had one huge puppet, whilst 101 Dalmatians has lots of smaller, different puppets. But there is also a difference in the tone, this is a story of love, greed and consumerism, and there is a new score sung by Cruella – all her monologues are in song, so this is very exciting.

Tessa explained what they were looking for in Cruella.

We were interested in someone who identified with what she was doing. Wanted to give Cruella a heart, too easy to just say she is greedy and wants a coat. We needed someone who would get some sort of sympathy, but also someone who could sing the monologues. There is something about when someone stops talking and starts to sing, it takes the story up another level.

I asked Tessa if there was a reason why the Rep always produced something slightly darker than the usual Christmas offering. Tessa explained that they look at what the city of Birmingham has to offer in terms of theatre and try to offer something different, something darker. Tessa believes the darker the story, the more lightness you can find. You have to be mindful of how much the children in the audience are scared, but children do like the darker elements, and love rooting for the good guys.

Jimmy Grimes

Jimmy gave us a fascinating chat about the puppets used in the show. He explained that the puppets need to look physically realistic and recognisable in their mannerisms. There would usually be one puppeteer per dog, but this creates issues in a play called 101 dalmatians so you need a solution. The solution was a wide range of different puppets, from dogs that are just heads on sticks, to dogs that have no back legs.

We are asking the audience to fill in the gaps, with the puppets bodies blending in physically with the physicality of the puppets.

Jimmy explained that one of the most wonderful scenes that illustrate the scope of the puppets is the dogs with their owners walking in Regents Park. We were shown a Scottie dog on wheels – this simply needs to walk so doesn’t need as much range. Jimmy explained that this puppet was influenced by the Fisher Price dogs and ducks on wheels that were popular in the 1970s/1980s, something the audience might recognise.

Jimmy explains that the dogs face big emotional scenes, lots of running and escaping so they need to be able to move in a range of ways. In addition, the dogs need mannerisms that are recognisable characteristics – the poodle struts and wiggles her bottom, a cat who has slower movements that pick out the essence of her character. The main dogs are slightly human in order to convey their emotions and feelings.

101 Dalmatians

Birmingham Rep Theatre

30th November to 13th January 2018

Click here for ticket information

 

Awful Auntie Live On Stage In Birmingham

Awful Auntie stormed into the Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre tonight delighting both children and adults alike. The latest David Walliams novel to be adapted for the stage has all the hallmarks that make Walliams’s books so brilliant, a monstrous villain, a plucky, determined child, a story of loss and friendship. But, unlike the other Walliam’s stories, this is a story set in the past, in the 1920s, and there’s no sign of Raj. That said,it is still a brilliantly told tale, and in Alberta Saxby, it has one of the most memorable baddies in recent times.

Stella Saxby is 12, almost 13, when she wakes up in her bed swathed head to toe in bandages. She’s been in a coma for four months, since the car crash that killed her parents Lord and Lady Saxby, and is now in the care of her Aunt Alberta and her giant Bavarian Owl Wagner. Stella is suspicious that her Aunt means her harm and may have been involved in the death of her parents, and this is confirmed when Stella is locked in the dark coal cellar. But in the cellar she meets a friendly ghost, Soot, a chimney sweep who lost his life when someone lit a fire underneath him. With Soot’s help, Stella sets about getting rid of her ‘awful auntie’, but it turns out to be a difficult job as her aunt outwits her every step of the way. Will Stella ever be safe again, and who is Soot really.

Awful-Auntie-by-Birmingham-Stage-Company.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-

The key to the success of ‘Awful Auntie’ is the superb casting. Timothy Speyer is a hoot as Aunt Alberta, playing the role as a cross between Stanley Baxter and, well, David Walliams, in drag. His comedic timing his just brilliant, particularly in the Home Alone – esque scene when his bedroom is booby trapped. Georgina Leonidas and Ashley Cousins are also great, giving spirited charming performances as Stella and Soot, characters you can really get behind in their troubles. Elderly butler Gibbon, played by Richard James was another crowd pleaser, have the young audience in stitches with his short sighted, decrepit ways and actions, actions that include serving a pair of burnt slippers as breakfast and wiping a dirty floor with a priceless fur stole.

Awful-Auntie-by-Birmingham-Stage-Company.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-

The staging of Awful Auntie is clever, with a vintage motor car careering across the stage, and sets that rotate to create a coal shute and a library and other rooms to give the impression of Saxby Hall. Wagner is wonderfully controlled by puppeteer Roberta Bellekom.

Awful-Auntie-by-Birmingham-Stage-Company.-Photo-by-Mark-Douet-

Awful Auntie is a delight for children of all ages.

Awful Auntie

New Alexandra TheatreĀ 

Wednesday 22 to Sunday 26 November 2017

Click here for ticket information

Miracle On 34th Street – Feelgood Fun

Feelgood is a word that is overused at this time of the year, but when it comes to BMOS production of Miracle on 34th Street, it is the perfect word to use. This lovely production of a Christmas classic is warm, funny and charming, and in Stewart Keiller it has a lead character who may just be Santa Claus.

The story of Miracle on 34th Street is that of a Christmas Classic. A kindly elderly gentleman, Kris Kringle, comes into the life of a cynical little girl called Susan Walker. Susan’s mother Doris has hired him to play Santa at Macy’s, but Doris and Susan have no real love of Christmas, they don’t believe that Santa is real. Doris is also bruised by her experience of love, so when her new neighbour, retired marine Fred Gaily starts to pay attention to her and Susan, her defences go up and she tries to shut him out. But they are thrown together when Kris Kringle is accused of being insane because he says he is the real Santa Claus, with Doris asking Fred to defend Kris. Can Kris be saved from commitment, and can it be that he really is Santa Claus?

Ariane Photography Studio

Ariane Photography Studio

This is a heartwarming story that is told well by its talented cast. Stewart Keiller is just right as Kris Kringle, he plays Santa exactly as you want him to be, jolly, kindly and with a twinkle in his eye. Jo Smith has a wonderful singing voice that is shown to great effect as Doris, and she has a great chemistry with her leading man Matthew Collins as Fred. Matthew is great as Fred, particularly in the funny scene featuring ‘She Hadda Go Back. Willow Heath makes a super Susan, sweet and cute without being precocious, she touches the heart when she wishes for a farm house, with a swing and a cow.

The sets are just beautiful, recreating 1940s Macys and the parade with real style. The whole feel is of a Christmassy winter wonderland, a feeling only enhanced with the use of ‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas’. With a snowy fairytale finale, I left the theatre totally ready for Christmas.

Just lovely.

Miracle on 34th Street

New Alexandra Theatre

16th-18th November

Click here for ticket information