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‘101 Dalmatians’ Review – a treat for the eyes with a bitter taste

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil. Set by Colin Richmond, Costume by Katrina Lindsay, Lighting by Howard Hudson. Photo by Mark Senior.

Culture Editor Keir Holmes reviews “101 Dalmatians”, a new musical with near-perfect visuals and a far from perfect script. 

The “101 Dalmatians” franchise has seen an unexpected resurgence in the last few years. Back in 2021, audiences were treated to Disney’s “Cruella”, which gave the titular dognapper a surprisingly enjoyable origin story. Now, just one year later, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has introduced “101 Dalmatians: A New Musical” as their second summer show.

Of course, working with a property that’s so closely associated with the copyright behemoth that is Disney, the team at Regent’s Park has been forced to distance themselves as far as possible from anything unique to the classic film. Yet, rather than sticking to the outline provided by Dodie Smith’s novel, this production has changed the beloved story to fit an entirely unique vision. Gone are Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, here we instead follow another young couple, Dominic and Danielle. 

Most of these changes fall flat. In a far too obvious attempt at modernising the iconic villainess, Cruella de Vil has been made into an “influencer”, vaping into our protagonists’ faces and referring to her enemies as “trolls” and “incels”. Here, her plan to make a coat out of puppies is born out of a desire for revenge, spurred on after a “viral vid” in which she is caught hitting dalmatians gets her “cancelled”. The many references to online culture soon become tired, and this feeling isn’t helped by some awkward attempts to compare her to the infamous far-right figures that are littered across today’s internet. This is a shame as Kate Fleetwood’s performance as Cruella is deliciously camp.

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil. Photo by Mark Senior. The image has been cropped and compressed.

Fleetwood is not the only talent let down by a below-average script. As a whole, the performers are suitably lively and energetic, making the play feel wonderfully fun in spite of its flaws.

Almost all aspects of the show’s design are similarly impressive. The set, designed by Colin Richmond, is splendid. Onstage, we see giant letters spelling out the show’s title. These letters are creatively twisted, turned, and repurposed as walls and furniture in the young couple’s house as the show goes on. 

The show’s puppetry is particularly commendable. Designed by Toby Olié, who previously worked on “War Horse”, the many dalmatian puppets were regularly met with audible affection from the audience. The joy that these puppets create continues even at the very end of the play, in which roughly 101 dalmatians fill the stage. By all means, this production is a visual spectacle. 

Eric Stroud and Karen Fishwick as Dominic and Danielle. Photo by Mark Senior. The image has been cropped and compressed.

All of this brilliant work makes you wish for a better script. In an interview with Douglas Hodge, the actor-turned-director responsible for its music, he describes the musical as a “family show”. Yet, while most “family” productions remain consistently enjoyable for both adults and children, this one never entirely managed to keep that balance. Some scenes, primarily those following Cruella’s long-suffering lackeys Jasper and Casper, felt so juvenile that they could only be enjoyed by children, while others made cheap jabs at Boris Johnson and corruption in football in an attempt to keep adults entertained. 

The music, while by no means bad, isn’t much to write home about either. All of the songs are pleasant, but soon after leaving the theatre I couldn’t remember a single tune. 

It is almost painful to be so critical of a new production, especially one that has so much going for it. The choreography is hypnotically slick, the stage is a marvel, and the puppetry brings bucketloads of charm. If these aspects are all that matter to you in a show, then you will enjoy it. Be warned though, if you’re expecting something on par with the novel or the Disney classic, this may disappoint. 

“101 Dalmatians: A New Musical” is playing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 28 August. You can book tickets here.

Former Culture Editor for Roar News.

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