101 Dalmatians

Dodie Smith, adapted by Debbie Isitt
Royal and Derngate Production
Royal Theatre, Northampton
(2007)

Production photo by Robert Day

The Royal and Derngate in Northampton has the advantage at Christmas of being able to offer a big, 'celebrity' filled pantomime and something a little different at the same time. That something this year is 101 Dalmatians, taking place in the Royal Theatre from Tuesday 4th December to Sunday 6th January 2008.

Following on from the haunting Starseeker, Dani Parr is back to direct what will surely be a successful Christmas show at the Royal. A performance that catered for the delighted children and the entertained adults alike, there is a quality throughout this show that makes even the hardest Scrooge feel a little warmer.

The first point to make is the fact that the show stays true to the original story by Dodie Smith - there isn't a Disney drawing or song in sight and this adds a little integrity to the whole evening.

The decision to cast ninety children as the Dalmatian puppies (with thirty kids performing in each show) is an inspired one, especially as they all performed with such commitment, energy and professionalism. This idea worked, because each little actor portrayed his or her puppy's physicality and movement with a convincing flair. It was clear that the young performers had been directed and worked with, rather than being placed for effect.

It was this commitment to the animal characteristics and movement that also made the show work. Peter Elliot, an Animal Movement Consultant, worked with the performers and this was clear in the attention to detail - especially through James Daniel Wilson's portrayal of Pongo and Krissi Bohn's Missis.

The animals seemed to work best when the Costume Design was as excellent as the performance. Emma Thornett's Sheepdog for example was brilliant and had you convinced that Sheepdog's really do speak with a West Country accent.

It is difficult to pick out one performer, as the cast were so strong - multi-role playing which never wavered throughout. However, with this story the magnetic role of Cruella De Vil is so central that you need someone capable of carrying it off. Georgina Roberts was more than capable, turning in a fantastically macabre performance from the moment that she made her grand entrance to the equally dramatic exit.

The production was brought together by a cartoon like set and soundtrack - Grant Olding composing accessible and catchy songs, whilst Ben Stones' design was littered with magical touches - the fire which consumed Cruella and dog basket that the puppies 'appeared' from come to mind. The huge backdrops and projections also helped set the various scenes.

The show was a crowd-pleaser throughout. There is audience participation to the fullest, as the actors move through the theatre making contact with those sitting in the gods as well as in the stalls. Perhaps the most exciting point was watching the audience as they came face to face with a dog, hero or villain. Etched on their little faces was a delighted and engaged expression. One can only hope that those children will experience theatre like this again.

"101 Dalmatians" plays at the Royal and Derngate until Sunday 6th January 2008

Reviewer: John Johnson