THE 101 DALMATIANS
The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 23rd November, 2013
The festive season of family fare gets off to a cracking start with this non-seasonal story from the New Vic’s artistic director Theresa Heskins. Her adaptation of Dodie Smith’s classic children’s novel is a stylish, charming and inventive piece with plenty for all ages to enjoy.
Set in the 1950s, the cut of Lis Evans’s costumes is clean and sharp in bright colours or, of course, vibrant white with black spots. The cast is paired off into dogs and their human pets. They lindy hop (I believe it’s called) in a joyous opening number.
What takes the dog biscuit is the jazz-informed score by James Atherton, performed by the man himself, and various cast members when they’re not wagging their tails or holding up props as human fixtures and fittings. The music is irresistible, the heartbeat of the performance, playing under scenes like a particularly cool and hep film soundtrack, and then coming to the fore for the songs, the best of which are belted out by Polly Lister’s Cruella De Vil. Atherton’s score is the sumptuous icing on the top of a very big cake.
Playing the lead, as well as wearing one, is Oliver Mawdsley as the energetic Pongo. He and Perdita (Hannah Edwards) form an appealing and amusing pair, casting asides over their shoulders, commenting on the strange behaviour of the humans. When their large litter of little puppies is stolen, they em-bark on a quest to retrieve them and the production goes all out for invention and surprise. The ‘twilight barking’ uses dogs cropping up through trapdoors and speaking in a range of regional accents to convey the distance the message is spread. The question in my mind, if not everyone else’s, is how is Theresa Heskins going to show us the full complement of Dalmatians?
Well, she does. A troupe of local children, dog-eared (so to speak) and tailed represent some of the puppies but they are also puppeteers operating many more. That’s fair enough but then the ideas keep coming – any single one of which would have been more than adequate. Theresa Heskins has access to an inexhaustible well of invention, it seems.
Polly Lister stalks and declaims (and even drives a marvellous customised car) around the stage. Her insatiable lust for fur and animal skins marks her out as the villain – Dodie Smith must have been among the first to criticise the fur-fashion industry.
Pashcale Straiton is very funny as Nanny, producing newborn pups from about her person and I would have liked to have seen more of Cruella’s comedy henchmen, Anthony Hunt and Andy Cryer as the Baddun brothers. Matt Connor and Sophie Scott are suitably perky and bright as human couple, the Dearlys – they emphasise the Englishness of this production, reclaiming the story from Disney’s England-through-American-eyes cartoon.
With its anthropomorphism of the dogs and even the hat-racks and table lamps, the show hints at a darker story. It’s not only a matter of animal cruelty and exploitation, it’s about man’s inhumanity to other humans too. Written post-war, the novel is an archetypal rescue-and-escape story. It’s Maria and the Captain leading the Von Trapp family away from the Nazis. Cruella’s Hell Hall is a concentration camp in which the prisoners will be violently exterminated and skinned, their hides put to use – I shivered when I saw a cast member holding up a lampshade.
This is not an overt metaphor but it’s there if you look for it. What you get at the New Vic is a superb evening’s entertainment, funny and touching. It’s enchanting in both form and content and will no doubt knock spots off the competition.