Saving the Puppies!
“I can smell a puppy! “
The puppets of the adult dogs Perdi and Pongo are wonderful. Designed and directed by Toby Olié who was one of the puppeteers behind the ground breaking elegant creatures (I refuse to call them puppets) of the show that raised the form to the state of the art, War Horse. These doggies have an unobtrusive human controlling their front legs and their hind legs and tails are another actor in costume spots who voices them. It works well as so much design thought has gone into their heads and necks as well as doggy behaviour like sniffing each other’s bottoms, cocking a leg and scratching with a hind leg.
There are two more stars in the Open Air’s production. The first and most feared is Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil with her gorgeous blackboard scraping Essex accent, clothes by Katrina Lindsay and her newly assumed profession of social media “influencer”. Why she would want a dog hair coat rather than cat fur of the Bengal variety is a mystery to me. Perhaps when Dodie Smith wrote A Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1956, the Bengal cat had not been thought of. Dodie Smith’s anti-fur views were well ahead of her time.
To make her even more obnoxious, Cruella has views on racial purity for dogs, no Cockerpoos in her desired wardrobe and she puffs non stop at one of those scented vaping alternatives to cigarettes often eclipsing her head in smoke. She wears the monochrome version of the union flag as a part of her black and white style neo Fascism. When she posts a video of her beating a dog, thousands of dog haters follow her.
The other star is Colin Richmond’s superlative set with 101 Dalmations in large font and the zero formed by a huge dog collar on a red lead. It is impressive in daylight and even more so by night. Set in the trees at the Open Air, it is always a magical place on a dry and balmy summer’s evening.
Musically the First Act was a bit of a disappointment for me with the group songs being a bit shouty, overly loud and the lyrics hard to hear. The music and lyrics are by actor and director Douglas Hodge but I am surprised at the brilliant director Timothy Sheader allowing this act’s music to go ahead as is.
Cruella’s songs are of course the exception to this with Kate Fleetwood’s excellent diction. She seduces Danielle (Karen Fishwick) and Dominic (Eric Stroud)’s dogs with treats and when she realises Perdi is expecting, she makes a bid for the puppies. You will be wondering how the puppeteers are going to stage 99 Dalmatian puppies. Fifteen babies are born to Perdi and Pongo; we see their heads and later actors wear a spotted sleeve with a tail on their elbow to create these miniature dogs.
Cruella’s uncharacteristically soft ballad turns into a loud celebration (from her point of view not the puppies’) of fur, spotted fur in “Für Fur”. She finds nephews Casper (Jonny Weldon) and Jasper (George Bukhari) to help her on her dastardly couturier mission.
Act Two improved no end for me with a welcome play on my emotions. As Perdi and Pongo realise their puppies have been stolen, their heartfelt cries of “Where Are They?” and “Where Have Our Babies Gone?” are distressing.
I doubt it was the case in 1956 but nowadays, pedigree dogs are stolen all the time and their identity chips surgically removed. Maybe Doggy DNA can help? We hear of dogs slipping their leads on walks and disappearing, or puppies stolen in burglaries.
The stolen Dalmatian puppies are locked in a cage protected by electronic locks. There are actor children playing the puppies and I loved their number WWDD, or What Would Daddy Do? We had met Captain Head (wonderfully sung by Stuart Angell) the St Bernard in the park and been introduced to the Twilight Barking message system. There are Poodles, Scottish Terriers, Dobermans, Boxers and German Shepherds joining in the hunt for the puppies.
Cruella sings about her allergy to cats, “I’m allergic, When I get itchy, I get twitchy, I get tetchy.” But the cats come to the rescue! Cruella is tricked into the cage and electrocuted and in a cartoon like design coup, her eyes stand out on red stalks and electric current flashes surround her head and she vomits!
By the first few minutes of the Second Act, I was involved with the Dalmatians’ plight and feeling I could recommend this show. The audience joined in, many of them wearing empathetic spotty frocks or black and white shirts but no leopard prints thank goodness which would have been bad taste.
There is a wonderful finale with the advent of the hundred and first dalmation, the last puppy to be found, a pretty, little spotty puppy with a waggy tail, a real puppy we all want to take home with us.
Go Wild/Now Then
It’s My Treat
Bury That Bone
Bite It Back
Turn Round Three Times
Heads Or Tails
The English Pub
Two Bad Criminals
What The Bleep
I Can Smell Puppy
All Of Our Kisses
Turn Around Three Times (Reprise)
Bury That Bone/Litterbugs (Reprise)
One Hundred And One
Music and Lyrics by Douglas Hodge
Book by Johnny McKnight
Stage Adaptation by Zinnie Harris
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Director: Timothy Sheader
Set Designer: Colin Richmond
Puppetry Designer and Director: Toby Olié
Choreographer: Liam Steel
Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Musical Supervisor and Orchestrator: Sarah Travis
Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson
Sound Designer: Nick Lidster for Autograph
Sound Designer (Content): Ella Wahlström
Video and Projection: Douglas O’Connell
Musical Director: Tarek Merchant
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking until 28th August 2022
Open Air Theatre
London NW1 4NU
Phone: 0333 400 3562
Tube: Baker Street
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Open Air
on 22nd July 2022