101 Dalmatians at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
101 Dalmatians is a fun, surprisingly emotional story about the secret lives of dogs who are smarter than their owners, or, in their words, “pets”. The puppets are excellent, their movements believably dog-like and their human counterparts do a fantastic job of anthropomorphising the characters. There are some touching songs and overall it’s an enjoyable watch, but overboard attempts to modernise the story sometimes fall flat.
Two dalmatians, Pongo and Perdi, spot each other in Regent’s Park and it’s love at first sight. Their courtship is mirrored by their “pets”, Danielle and Dominic. It’s a nice touch that Pongo, owned by Danielle, has characteristics similar to Dominic and vice versa. Next thing you know, Danielle and Dominic are married and Perdi is pregnant, quickly giving birth to 15 puppies. The trouble starts when influencer and local anti-hero Cruella De Vil bursts into their house uninvited to take photographs with their dogs at the request of her “fans”. When she loses her temper and is bitten, Cruella hatches a dastardly plan for revenge.
Puppet designer and director Toby Olie has done a wonderful job with the dogs. The way they are designed leaves the human operators plenty of opportunity to show mannerisms and movements which are splendidly dog-like. The Captain, a wise and protective street dog who lost his home long ago, is amazingly well detailed, his saggy face wistfully heartbreaking. Tom Peter really brings this character to life, at times giving Ben from Monty Python’s Life of Brian vibes, but also bringing gentleness and strength to this sad but strong fatherly alpha.
The problem with the musical is the character of Cruella De Vil. This isn’t Katie Fleetwood’s fault: she is dynamic, fun and really gives it her all. Her performance during the musical numbers Bite it Back, Fur Fur and I Can Smell Puppies is fabulous, but unfortunately, she’s let down by the script. Attempts to modernise 101 Dalmatians lead to a dodgy patchwork of generic “bad things” in 2022, without giving much thought to the character’s underlying beliefs and motivations. Not only is Cruella a mean-spirited influencer obsessed with Instagram likes, but she’s also apparently a Katie Hopkins-style commentator who sprinkles words like “snowflake” and “cancelled” to show us what side of the political spectrum she’s on without having to explain much about her beliefs.
This could work if it was clearer what her motivations are, but as it stands it just seems like the writers threw a bunch of buzzwords at her in order to create a modern-day boogeywoman. At one point, Cruella announces that she is promoting her new book, Black and White Thinking. Is this book about seeing things as all one or all the other, or is it about racial supremacy? Considering her views on purebred dogs it may be the latter. Cruella’s motivation for wanting the dalmatian coat is also less convincing than in other adaptations: her audience hates dogs and she wants to make a controversial splash at the black and white ball. 101 Dalmatians naturally requires the watcher to suspend disbelief, but it’s hard to imagine many people tweeting “Cruella for PM” or “Yassss Queen” when they see someone beating up a dog. There’s an underlying association with racism and anti-immigration sentiments, but it just feels forced.
101 Dalmatians does feel at times as if someone Googled 2022 and sprinkled the cultural references into the script with reckless abandon, but there are moments when it works really well. There’s a particularly funny moment during Two Bad Criminals where Boris Johnson makes a cameo. The puppies (and their human child counterparts) are excellent. The songs aren’t revolutionary but several, including the finale, One Hundred and One, are catchy and touching, and it’s an overall funny and engaging performance. The dogs naturally steal the show and are missed when they’re not around.
Photo: Mark Senior
101 Dalmatians is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from 12th July until 28th August 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.