Review: 101 Dalmatians, Open Air Theatre

Long-awaited and strong of pedigree, this musical version of 101 Dalmatians at the Open Air Theatre proves to be a dog of a show

“You buried that bone somewhere”

Yaaaas kween! Or not as the case may be. The transformation of Cruella de Vil into an East London social media influencer is a bold swing from this new musical treatment of 101 Dalmatians but for me, it was a big miss. Written by Douglas Hodge (music and lyrics) and Johnny McKnight (book), from a stage adaptation by Zinnie Harris of Dodie Smith’s book, the pains taken to (presumably) steer of any Disney references leave the whole thing hamstrung. (Which is a real crime, particularly when you look at how iconic that publicity image is.)

Instead, we have writers who should know better as they simultaneously try to mock the social media age and capitalise upon it, shackling the magisterial Kate Fleetwood who deserves much better. There’s always an issue in trying to write of-the-minute phenomena but even allowing for Covid delays, the references here range from just cringey to downright objectionable and through it all, there’s just a really murky sense of actual motivation. Sticking ‘let’s go viral’ on it and hoping no-one will dig any deeper just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid. 

Another crucial problem for Timothy Sheader’s production is a real uncertainty of tone. There are moments when this feels entirely like a show aimed at kids, there are others when the lyrical content lurches to darkly comic; and none of sticks satisfactorily. Hodge’s score doesn’t help matters as its disparate musical influences do little to cohere. An East End knees up here, a tear-jerking folk-tinged cri de coeur there, a weirdly Disneyesque origin story for Cruella to close the first act – the constant ricocheting in style leaves one feeling all too restless.

There are some highlights – Toby Olié’s puppetry is charming and Emma Lucia and Danny Collins are just lovely as the voices of Perdi and Pongo (sadly far more charismatic than their owners). And Jonny Weldon and George Bukhari as Cruella’s bumbling nephews team up well. But so much of the attempted humour falls flat, Colin Richmond’s set design lacks magic and the whole show lacks any real emotional connection, leaving it far too late to introduce kids and real dogs to tug on the heartstrings. Sadly, a dog of a show.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Mark Senior
101 Dalmatians is booking at Open Air Theatre until 28th August

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