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

 

 

Nativity The Musical Is Just Glorious

If you are looking for a show that is the epitome of feelgood, family entertainment, then you must see Nativity the Musical, which is currently wowing audiences at the Birmingham Rep. I went to see the show last night with my 8 year old boy and we were both totally enchanted by a show that has so much heart and warmth.

Nativity The Musical
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

You may remember Nativity from the Martin Freeman movie that has become a bit of a Christmas classic, but for those who haven’t seen the movie, Nativity is the tale of three childhood friends who all go into acting but fail in this chosen career. The two male actors, Mr Maddens and Mr Shakespeare, become primary teachers in two very different schools, whilst Jennifer, who is also the girlfriend of Mr Maddens, pursues her dream of working in Hollywood, leaving Maddens one Christmas. Maddens and Shakespeare get into a deep rivalry when it comes to the annual Nativity performance, both seeking a five star review from local reviewer Patrick Burns, with only Shakespeare, working at the exclusive Oakmoor School, getting it. Despondent over the loss of Jennifer, and the humiliation of theĀ  St Bernadette’s nativity, Mr Madden decides he hates Christmas. But when headteacher Mrs Bevan decides that the school is going to have another try at the nativity, and that Mr Maddens is going to be in charge, things start to catapult out of control. Add into the mix the arrival of the loveable, but slightly crazy Mr Poppy as his new classroom assistant, and you have all the ingredients for a Christmas disaster.

Nativity The Musical
Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Nativity is a total joy, not least because of the joyous performances. The leads are just wonderful, with Simon Lipkin a standout as Mr Poppy, playing the role with the childlike exuberance it needs. His Mr Poppy isn’t just ‘down with the kids’, he is a real child-man, and is totally delightful, and so easy to fall in love with as a result. Daniel Bays, as Mr Maddens, is perfect foil for the energy of Mr Poppy, he looks uncannily like Martin Freeman in the same role, but adds balance and pathos, particularly in the scene where he reads the letters the children have wrote for Santa. Sarah Earnshaw as Jennifer is also very good, particularly in the scene where she sings the poignant ‘Jennifer’s request’, whilst Andy Brady makes Mr Shakespeare a perfect pantomime style baddy, I loved his over the top rendition of ‘Herod the Rock Opera’ which is frankly hilarious.

But as good as all those central performances are, it is the children who are at the heart of Nativity, and totally steal the show. Forget all ideas of the stage school kids that can be frighteningly professional (and slightly scary if I’m honest), the children of Nativity are adorable, totally melting the hearts of even the hardest critic. The warmth and exuberance of their performances feel totally real and natural, and each and every one of them just shine. There could not have been an audience member who didn’t have a lump in their throat during the poignant, heartfelt ‘Dear Father Christmas’ whilst the songs of the ‘Nativity’ itself are alive with humour and sass. By the time the curtain falls, after the incredibly catchy ‘Sparkle and Shine’. they have the audience on their feet, totally believing they have witnessed the rebirth of St Bernadette’s.

Nativity is a total delight, a must see for anyone with a love of musicals, the underdog, and, of course, Christmas. I hope this becomes a Christmas staple like the Rep’s other, much loved festive fair, The Snowman. If I could give it 10 stars I would. Just Fabulous.

 

Nativity the Musical

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

20 October – 12 November.

Click here for ticket information.