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


The Whip Hand – Powerful Drama At The Birmingham Rep

The Whip Hand is a powerful new play from the Traverse Theatre Company and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre with the National Theatre of Scotland. It tells a family tale of money, greed, guilt and hatred, with all of these issues revealed during a seemingly happy celebration – a family birthday. Played out by a talented ensemble cast of five, The Whip Hand asks the question, are we responsible in some way for the actions of our ancestors.

Dougie is 50 and is life is most definitely at a crossroads. Back living with his mother, and sharing a room with his directionless nephew Aaron, his life is a direct contrast to that of his ex-wife, and mother of his daugher, Arlene, who is now living in an Ikea catologue show home with husband Lorenzo. Despite the divorce, it seems like happy families for them all, with Arlene and Lorenzo throwing a party to celebrate Dougie’s birthday, and the excellent exam grades that have ensured daughter Molly a place at Sheffield University. But during the course of the party, Dougie drops a bombshell that threatens the lives they are all currently living, and particularly the future for Molly. The party descends into a maelstrom of anger and emotion that ultimately leads the most placid, easy going member of the household into an act of violence.

All the cast are perfect in their roles. Jonathan Watson as Dougie is the epitome of a middle aged man at a crossroads, but he gives Dougie an air of menace that belies that soft exterior. His final parting shots are almost chilling in their coldness. Richard Conlon as Lorenzo is very much a new man, easy going, almost wet, but trying to be conciliatory and fair. His chemistry with Arlene (Louise Ludgate) is one of the high points of the drama, and also gives the play a warm heart and at least an early element of humour. Louise Ludgate is brilliant as the feisty, passionate Arlene, who will fight tooth and very long fingernail with Dougie to ensure that their daughter’s future is safe guarded. Her fast verbal altercations with Dougie and Aaron sparkle with hatred and are powerful enough to remain with you long after you leave the theatre. The younger members of the cast are great too, with Michael Abubakar as Aaron noticeably turning from a pleasant, friendly young man, to a questionably shady character as he tries to manipulate his friend and cousin into turning over her university fund to her father. Joanne Thomson plays Molly as the moral conscience of the piece, troubled by her father’s revelations, but totally questioning how responsible the current generation is for the crimes of their forefathers. Molly seems controlled and responsible, so when she descends into her own rage it is both potent and shocking.

The Whip Hand is a powerful piece of theatre, the sort that leaves you with so many discussions when you leave.

The Whip Hand

Birmingham Rep Theatre 05 Sep 2017 – 16 Sep 17

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Jane Eyre At The Rep, Birmingham – Delicious Gothic Melodrama

You have to feel for Jane Eyre, one of the most unlucky heroines in classic literature. Her life was one of low after low, orphaned soon after birth, hated by the family who took her in but saw her as a cuckoo in the nest, sent away to a school where she was treated brutally, losing her best friend to consumption and ill treatment, and when she finally breaks out as a governess and falls in love with her boss, the mysterious, and let’s be honest, rather strange Mr Rochester, her plans for true love are thwarted by the maniacal tendencies of the first Mrs Rochester, not so safely locked away in the attic.A sad and desperate story, but one with all the juicy ingredients to make a riveting, deliciously dark and Gothic piece of theatre. And, in the latest collaboration between the National Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic, that is exactly what you have.

Jane Eyre, which opened at Birmingham’s Rep Theatre last night, has all the hallmarks of a piece of work from the National Theatre, in that it stays faithful to the Charlotte Bronte story, but puts a very modern twist on the tale through the use of sparse and industrial style sets and music from a live band and the incredible vocal talent of Melanie Marshall as the mad, bad Bertha. The talented cast of six principals, plus Melanie, perform a series of roles with aplomb, with only the incredible Nadia Clifford as a spirited, driven Jane playing only one role.

The action through the early part of the play is moved on quickly. But certain scenes resonate as they establish that young Jane has a strong and honest character and a real sense of right and wrong. Lynda Rooke is a deliciously evil Mrs Reed, sworn to treat Jane like her own child, but instead viciously bullying and victimising the child before sending her away to a school governed by the God Fearing bully Mr Brocklehurst (Paul Mundell). Jane develops a friendship with the saintly and sickly Helen (Hannah Bristow) but finds it hard to understand how Helen accepts undue punishments without hate. As a young adult Jane has progressed to teaching in the school herself, but feels trapped and imprisoned, and so moves out to become a governess to Adela (again Hannah Bristow – I love her in this role, so effervescent.) It is only on meeting Mr Rochester that Jane discovers passion and love in equal parts, giving Nadia Clifford free rein to show a range of emotions to devastating effect, and to show real chemistry with the charismatic and commanding Tim Delap as Rochester.

This is a brilliant production of a classic book that is both full of surprises, doesn’t shrink from violence or politically incorrect treatment and labeling of women, but also has the power to shock and delight, particularly in the use of a favourite Gnarls Barkley hit single to illustrate the fate of Bertha and Rochester. And whilst it doesn’t end with ‘reader, I married him’, it is satisfying to lovers of the book in every other way.


Jane Eyre

The Rep, Birmingham 5-16 September

Click here for ticket information