Countdown to Cruella Pt 2 – A Chat With The Cast

Following on from my chat with the director of 101 Dalmatians, Tessa Walker, and puppetry designer Jimmy Grimes, this post is, as promised, a chat with some of the cast who will be bringing Dodie Smith’s much loved classic tale to life at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre next month.

Emma Thornett and Oliver Wellington

We start with a chat with Emma Thornett and Oliver Wellington, who play Missus and Pongo in the new adaptation. If you are unfamiliar with the book, you may be wondering who Missus is, but, as Emma explained, Missus is actually the mother of the puppies, rather than Perdita. Disney merged Missus and Perdita into one character in the film, but in the book they are both mother’s who have lost their babies. Emma mused that maybe

Disney liked the alliteration of Pongo and Perdita, but it is a shame they weren’t both in the animation.

I asked if either Emma or Oliver had any prior experience of working with puppets. Oliver had no prior experience, saying ‘it’s all new to me.’ Emma, on the other hand, had worked on Warhorse previously with Jimmy Grimes and said that initially, she didn’t think she would enjoy it. Both agreed that puppeteers need to be in a devoted state, even if they are physically in pain, stuck in funny positions controlling the puppet.

I asked if they found it easier to get into the character having the puppets. Oliver explained:-

It’s kind of like when you finally get your costume, you feel more in character. I guess it may have taken longer to get into the character without the puppet.

Emma Continued

So much of the role is based on the physicality. It is like when you’re a kid and you play with figures and dolls, you lose yourself in play.

The actors also talk about how long it took for them to get the synergy. Oliver said the actors fell in love when they saw the puppets, loved how they moved and worked. The nuances were so realistic and detailed. Emma further explained that:

With puppetry, performance is always evolving and becoming finessed, with things working in a better way. We’re still finding out things about what the puppies can do – for example the feet have changed from the original design.

Gloria Onitiri and Jo Servi

Gloria Onitiri as Cruella De Vil_credit Graeme Braidwood_preview

We conclude the countdown to Cruella with a chat with the lady herself, Gloria Onitiri, and Jo Servi, who plays her husband Horace. Both Gloria and Jo were feeling super excited about the show. Gloria was very passionate in her reasons for wanting to play Cruella, saying

I know I should be super nervous, but I feel like I’m bringing something else to the role that hasn’t been seen before, her humanity, her humility. I want to show a back story, what is is that makes her act the way she does. In the Dodie Smith novel her unusual hair is natural, showing she’s always been different and has never fitted in. She saw her mother pour all her love into dogs in her animal shelter, thinks that people will love me if I wear fur as well.

Jo explains his love of the role

It’s certainly not boring being married to Cruella. She is his muse and model for his fur designs, it is a match made in heaven. It starts off being wonderful being married to Cruella, but throughout the story things start to turn sour. Horace is more of a henchman in the Disney cartoon rather than a husband, but I am not that familiar with the cartoon, which probably worked better.

I asked if Gloria had taken any inspiration from Glenn Close or the Disney Cruella. The answer is no

I really wanted people to think, Oh Cruella and really feel for her. I don’t need to take my tips from Glenn Close or Disney, my Cruella is much younger for a start. And the book is so rich, it’s all there. The novel is dark, Disney took the edge from it. We are definitely doing our own version.

Both Gloria and Jo are excited to see the real version of 101 Dalmatians on the stage, feeling that audiences really don’t know that much about it. They feel audiences must not be afraid to see something new.

Birmingham Repertory Theatre presents

The Hundred And One Dalmatians

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