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101 Dalmatians Review: ‘a three-star musical in five-star clothing’

Simon Button writes: "The weakest link is Douglas Hodge’s music, which boasts not one single memorable tune".

By Alastair James

Words: Simon Button; pictures: Mark Senior

The way the titular pooches are brought to life in the new 101 Dalmatians musical is delightful. Ma and pa of the litter, Pongo and Perdi, are done as life-size puppets, with actors and puppeteers (Danny Collins and Ben Thompson for Pongo, Emma Lucia and Yana Penrose for Perdi) providing the movement and voices and serving as their hind legs.

Their puppies, when they come along in rapid succession, are cute Dalmatian heads that appear on the hands and feet of the ensemble or pop up from behind furniture and from under the stage. They’re a giggle-inducing sight that had kids and adults alike cooing on press night, with a puppet Bullmastiff, a human-acted cat, and a real Dalmatian all thrown in for good measure.

The star of the show, though, is Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil. In Dodie Smith’s original novel she was a wealthy woman with a fur fixation, the same in Disney’s animated film version and a fashion house supremo in the live-action remake starring a deliciously diabolical Glenn Close. Now she’s been reinvented as an influencer with a terrifyingly high ponytail and a low follower count who sings “I channel sinner, not saint” and finds increased notoriety when she’s cruel to a couple of canines.

Fleetwood plays her as a pantomime villainess who ends act one vocalising her obsession with “Für Fur” atop a tower of pelts with a doggy crown askew on her head. She’s dogshit crazy, desperate to get her black-gloved hands on all those Dalmatians so she can fashion a fur coat for the Black and White Ball.

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil (Photo Mark Senior)

Instead of the idiot henchman who helped Close in her quest, this Cruella has a couple of nitwit nephews Jasper (George Bukhari) and Casper (Jonny Weldon) who up the comedy ante and there are a quartet of child actors humanising heroic puppies Button, Lucky, Patch, and Spud that are sure to inspire kids in the audience to pester their parents about enrolling at drama school.

The weakest link is Douglas Hodge’s music, which boasts not one single memorable tune – a serious flaw in a new musical comedy. His lyrics are witty but his compositions are rudimentary at best.

Johnny McKnight’s book delivers lots of funny lines but meanders all over the place, and director Timothy Sheader often crowds the stage with actors, band members, and puppeteers to the detriment of dramatic focus.

Kate Fleetwood as Cruella de Vil (Photo Mark Senior)

And he’s at a loss as to how make Pongo and Perdi’s owners Dominic (Eric Stroud) and Danielle (Karen Fishwick) even remotely interesting; they’re wetter than a Schnauzer’s nose.

The staging makes up for all of these shortcomings. The ensemble are in monochrome while the principals are cleverly in colour and the show’s title is spelled out in huge letters that revolve to form the set – making this very much a three-star musical in five-star clothing.

Rating: 3/5

101 Dalmatians is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 28 August. For more information visit and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.