One of the last-remaining Covid-hit productions, new musical 101 Dalmatians has finally opened, two years late, at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. So was it worth the wait?
Well… Let’s start with the good bits. The dalmatians themselves – or at least the two main ones, the rest are bodiless heads – are brought to life by some genuinely spectacular puppetry, with the head and front paws controlled by one puppeteer and the hindquarters by a second wearing spotty trousers, standing tall over the animal like a projection of its personality. The way they move is incredibly lifelike, from their distinctive gallop to the way they use their hind legs to scratch their ears. They’re a joy.
Kate Fleetwood is well cast as Cruella De Vil, her cheekbones sharp enough to skin a puppy and her voice powerful enough to give her songs an edge of real menace. There’s also some slick choreography and impressive physical comedy by the chorus line.
And then there is the theatre itself, which is a genuine treat and honestly worth the price of admission alone on a balmy evening such as this.
But after that I’m struggling to find much to recommend. The tale has been modernised in what feels like the least inspiring way possible, with Cruella reimagined as a vapid influencer forever huffing on a vape. She’s caught beating the aforementioned dalmatians during a fashion shoot, only to find her follower-count rocket. When she gets wind that one of the dalmatians is pregnant she hatches a plan to harvest the litter – and any other spotty puppies she can find – to make a coat for Met Gala analogue the Black and White Ball.
Cruella is a stand-in for various commentators who make a living courting controversy – Katie Hopkins springs to mind but insert your least favourite talking head here. She’s flanked by her bumbling nephews who wear garish tracksuits and an acid house t-shirt; you could forgive the references being a little dated, but this would have felt tired a decade ago.
A musical, of course, lives or dies on the strength of its songs, and there’s a real paucity – pawcity! – of decent tunes. Fleetwood gets the pick of the litter in Für Fur and I Smell Puppies but beyond that the songs range from “workaday” to “immediately forgettable” to “actively abrasive”.
There’s also a pervasive tweeness to every supporting character, most notable in the owners of the dalmatians, who behave like two halves of a wet blanket. To avoid being labelled City A.M.’s very own Cruella De Vil I won’t get into my thoughts on the small troupe of child actors introduced in the second half.
Despite all this, the joy of being back at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre makes the whole experience almost worthwhile – but this production is already due a visit to the farm.