THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS
The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 5th December, 2017
Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1956 popular classic provides a perfect package of festive fun as the REP’s Christmas show for this year. Keeping a 1950s aesthetic in its clothes, furniture and voices, Tessa Walker’s production resonates with innocence and charm in its storytelling and theatrical brio in its execution. Of course, we wonder how so many puppies are going to be represented; Walker and her team of talented puppeteers do not disappoint. Jimmy Grimes has designed some economic but expressive dog and cat characters: an opening sequence of various people walking their various breeds of dog gets the show off to a delightful start.
Often, the plot calls for the puppets to hold the stage on their own. Oliver Wellington’s Pongo and Emma Thornett’s Missis make an appealing pair of protagonists, while their human counterparts, Morgan Philpott and Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, make their potentially bland roles come alive with humorous flair and earnestness. Lakesha Cammock brings pathos and bravery to the role of Perdita, while Mei Mac’s operating of the Persian Cat and the plucky tabby Tibbs brings diversity to this canine-dominated world. Not only do the puppeteers demonstrate skill with the animation of their characters, they also give impressive vocal characterisations. Quickly we overlook the artifice and begin to care for the creatures and their plight.
Of the humans, the baddies attract the most attention. Jo Servi is the least overtly wicked as Cruella De Vil’s husband Horace, indulging and enabling her worst excesses, almost humanising her. Luke Murphy is a lot of fun as dozy bad ’un, Saul Baddun, while Lewis Griffin shines as his energetic brother Jasper Baddun, with some hilarious physical comedy and moves that make him appear to be made of elastic, or perhaps he’s really a puppet himself!
Storming the stage in the iconic role of the vile and villainous Cruella is the magnificent Gloria Onitiri, parading around like a spoilt diva, like Ru Paul in his worst mood. Onitiri is a scream – her wild-eyed driving is a maniacal treat. But the production does not shy away from the story’s nasty side. The horrors and evils of the fur trade loom large – Dodie Smith was ahead of her time in her criticism of this barbaric practice – and so while we revel in Onitiri’s performance, we recognise Cruella for what she is.
Tessa Walker maintains a fast pace, giving us laughs and tension through a myriad of inventive touches, aided by Jamie Vartan’s multi-level set, giving us cars driving off into the distance, model buildings. A muted colour palette, augmented by Simon Bond’s beautiful lighting, gives the set a watercolour feel, like picture-book illustrations, with the only splash of colour the red lining of Cruella’s coat.
James Frewer’s original music, played live by onstage musicians and members of the cast, underscores the action with jazz-informed pieces, adding to the cartoonish feel, and there are a few good songs to heighten the mood and add to the fun.
All in all, it’s the REP’s best Christmas show for years. It runs until January 13th – you’d be barking to miss it.
Dogged determination: Gloria Onitiri as Cruella de Vil (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)
Leave a comment | tags: Debbie Isitt, Dodie Smith, Emma Thornett, Gloria Onitiri, James Frewer, Jamie Vartan, Jimmy Grimes, Jo servi, Lakesha Cammock, Lewis Griffin, Luke Murphy, Mei Mac, Morgan Philpott, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, Oliver Wellington, review, Simon Bond, Tessa Walker, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, The REP Birmingham | posted in Theatre Review
NATIVITY! The Musical
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 25th October, 2017
It’s too early to think about Christmas, I mutter as I take my seat, along with other curmudgeonly thoughts. Surely this production is ill-timed, we haven’t had Hallowe’en or Guy Fawkes yet… blah blah.
And then it begins. A bright and brash opening number with people dressed as elves and reindeer and there’s even a singing, dancing Christmas tree… but before I can utter so much as a ‘Bah, humbug!’ the infectious spirit of the show takes over and I find I can settle back and enjoy it.
It’s the tale of rival schools, vying for a five-star review in the local paper for their annual nativity show. The private school (aka the villains) led by Andy Brady as Mr Shakespeare go to all sorts of distasteful lengths, culminating in a rock opera about King Herod. The good guys, bottom of the league Saint Bernadette’s, underdog written all over them, have a reluctant director in the form of Mr Maddens (Daniel Boys) and his irrepressible idiot of a teaching assistant, Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin). A rumour goes around that a Hollywood producer (Maddens’s ex, Jennifer) is coming to see the show, and things rapidly spiral out of control.
Daniel Boys is excellent as the somewhat downtrodden Maddens, giving enough of a flavour of Martin Freeman to satisfy the expectations of fans of the film, while making the part his own. Simon Lipkin is irresistible as Poppy – you’d punch him in real life, but on stage he is our narrator, our clown, and our emotional temperature gauge. Andy Brady is clearly enjoying himself as the preposterous Mr Shakespeare and Jemma Churchill’s beleaguered head teacher, Mrs Bevan, combines passion for the job with humour and heart. I enjoy the acidic observations of critic Patrick Burns (Jamie Chapman). Sarah Earnshaw’s searing vocals as lost love Jennifer are a welcome counterpoint to the wall of sound coming from the kids.
The kids. The RSC has a lot to answer for. Its production of Matilda set the bar staggeringly high for what we expect from children on the professional stage. And this lot deliver – outstandingly so. Working as an ensemble or in solo moments, they all demonstrate commitment and talent. Director Debbie Isitt (who also wrote and co-composed the show) must have the patience of a schoolful of primary teachers! The stage is vibrant with energy and charm, sailing on the right side of mawkishness and sentimentality.
Laugh out loud funny and bursting with life, Nativity! manages to warm the heart of even this old grinch. It’s one present you’ll be glad to open early.
Simon Lipkin (Photo: Richard Davenport)
Leave a comment | tags: Andy Brady, Daniel Boys, Debbie Isitt, Jamie Chapman, Jemma Churchill, Nativity! The Musical, review, Sarah Earnshaw, Simon Lipkin, The REP Birmingham, theatre | posted in Theatre Review