101 Dalmatians at the Rep Birmingham – Just Wonderful

How a 101 Dalmatians would play as a stage show, particularly one based more on the Dodie Smith book rather than the Disney version was a question that I had been asking, particularly after watching a rehearsal session early last month. The answer is that it is a totally wonderful, heartwarming piece of theatre that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you gasp at the sheer brilliance of the puppetry, and gasp at what is the cutest spectacle you will see all Winter. It is, is short, a masterpiece that I totally fell in love with.

Morgan Philpott_Mr Dearly Nadi Kemp-Sayfi _Mrs Dearly Oliver Wellington_Pongo Emma Thornett_Missis credit: Graeme Braidwood

Pongo and Missis meet when their owners fall in love. It is love at first sight for the dalmatians too, and soon they are one big happy family, a happiness that is further enhanced by the news that Missis is expecting a delivery of pups. But that happiness is short lived when Mrs Dearly bumps into an old school friend, Cruella De Vil, a fur obsessed creature who takes and unhealthy interest in the puppies. Little do the Dearly’s know that Cruella is currently coveting, indeed obsessing over a dalmatian fur coat, and needs the dalmatian pups to make her warped dream a reality. The Dearly’s refuse to sell their puppies to her, but there is more than one way to skin a pup, and with the help of her husband Horace, and her henchmen the Badduns, she devises a plan to steal the puppies and get her coat. Will Pongo and Missis, and their friend Perdita, get the puppies back before Cruella is able to carry out her evil plan?

Morgan Philpott (Mr Dearly) Gloria Onitiri (Cruella) with Pongo & Missis credit: Graeme Braidwood

First we need to talk about the puppets that dominate the stage for large parts of the show. The range of ways that have been developed by puppetry designer Jimmy Grimes to house so many dogs on the stage are both ingenious and delightful. They truly enchant the audience, particularly the youngest members. There are a range of dogs and cats, as well as the dalmatians, and the fact that they dogs have been created to resemble their owners is just a wonderful, funny touch. In addition, all the animals have their own character and personality that is brought to live wonderfully by the talented puppeteers. In particular, Pongo, Perdita and Missis are exquisite, given their own unique personalities and mannerisms by Oliver Wellington, Lakesha Cammock and Emma Thornett. You feel their pain at losing their puppies, and this is no mean feat when you are working with animal puppets.

Oliver Wellington (Pongo) credit: Graeme Braidwood

Of course, there are also acting performances by humans in this play, and, in Gloria Onitiri, we have a true Cruella who dismisses the other Cruella’s with just a swish of her fur cape. She is phenomenal, dominating the stage with her style, beauty and cruelness. Her monologues, which she sings, are so powerful and memorable, and, it has to be said, wickedly funny too. She may not have got her wish to get that coat, but you know she would have totally rocked it, in all honesty.

Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) credit: Graeme Braidwood

Cruella is supported brilliantly by the fabulous Jo Servi as Horace. The dynamics of his relationship with Cruella are integral to the play, and they have wonderful chemistry together. Highlights of his performance include the jazzy 1920s dance routines that he performs with Cruella, and his own final monologue.

Luke Murphy (Saul) Lewis Griffin (Jasper) Gloria Onitiri (Cruella de Vil) Jo Servi (Horace De Vil) credit: Graeme Braidwood

The Dearly’s are lovely. Nadi Kemp-Sayfi is perfect as Mrs Dearly, the right combination of kindness, and a bit of insecurity when Cruella is around. Morgan Philpott shines as Mr Dearly, having a lot of the shows funny lines as he gets confused over whether it is his wife, or the dog that is pregnant, and also very funny as he describes Cruella, unaware she is listening to every word.

The Badduns are also hilariously funny in their ineptness and reluctance to hurt the puppies. They have so many funny moments, from their dance routine to something that resembles ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, to the way they try to catch the escaping puppies, encountering the older dogs and the feisty cat Tibbs (Mei Mac). Their musical number is performed with verve and swagger, and even though they are bad through and through, the audience absolutely loved them.

Luke Murphy (Saul) Lewis Griffin (Jasper) and ensemble credit: Graeme Braidwood

The whole play is flawless, from the pastel coloured sets, the stunning costumes worn by Gloria Onitiri, to the perfection of the direction from Tessa Walker.

This is one show that should not be missed this Christmas. It is simply stunning.

101 Dalmatians

Birmingham Rep

30 Nov 2017 – 13 Jan 18

Click here for ticket information

 

 

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

 

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