Production: The Hundred and One Dalmatians

Venue: The Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Production Run: Thur 30 Nov 2017 - Sat 13 Jan 2018

Like any medium worth its salt, in theatre the whole generally becomes greater than the sum of its parts. By the time an audience takes to the stalls and the curtain rises, the hope of any company is that the craftsmanship, invention, artistry, revision and rehearsals have all harmonised into seamless escapism, such that you are whisked away by narrative and character with little-to-no thought of trying to spot the joins.

It’s the mark of solid theatre-making, and something the Birmingham REP have honed to perfection with their original, in-house productions over the decades. And yet, in some ways, when you do get the chance to see just how much incredible discipline and creativity is poured into every nook, cranny, paw and whisker of a show such as The Hundred and One Dalmatians, running at the theatre December through January, it’s easy to lament the fact that most members of the public will not get to see it in its formative stages, nor the countless hours of painstaking work that goes into realising this latest take on Debbie Isitt’s adaptation of the beloved Dodi Smith classic.

It’s early November on a suitably chilly and overcast day in central Birmingham. In every corner of the almost labyrinthine, multi-storey backstage of the city’s Repertory Theatre, faux furs are being intricately stitched together, winding wooden walkways are being raised and assembled, intricate scale models of cars, churches and houses are getting their finishing splashes of watercolour, and a veritable menagerie of animal puppets are being intricately and delicately assembled.

It’s a hub of activity and excitement for the theatre’s 2017 Christmas production, and upstairs we are treated to a sneak peek at the rehearsal process for Dalmatians, including getting to see first-hand the stunning puppetry on display that will bring the titular characters and friends to life.

“There’s something inherently theatrical about puppets,” explains show director, and associate director at the REP, Tessa Walker, “it’s why I love working with them.”

It’s not the first time the REP and Walker have championed their use, either - 2015’s production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (also directed by Walker) was applauded by critics and audiences alike for its characterful and evocative use of puppet characters, from majestic lion Aslan to an imposing giant (who now lives backstage, suspended in one of the hangar-like construction bays).

“The big difference with Narnia, though, was that there were only one or two puppets at a time. I’m sure I didn’t feel it at the time, but that seems so much easier and smaller now. This show, [Dalmatians] is a lot bigger… we have to find a way of portraying 98 puppies!

“And it’s in the title, so you can’t really escape it!” 

From rehearsals alone, and also getting the chance to chat with some of the design creatives involved in the show, it seems to be a challenge that the company are not only enjoying tackling, but are realising beautifully. 

That is, bar the sight of a row of dalmatian puppy heads being scooped up into a bag and box at the end of a scene, something Walker comically assures us will not be the finished segue.

“We’ve had had to figure out, and are still in the process of figuring out, how best to realise that many puppets on stage at once, and how to bring them on and off stage, because this show has a lot more action and movement in it than, say, Narnia.”

“There are no doubt lots of ways to do that. I think some previous productions have had children in Dalmatian hoodies or used prosthetics on actors, but we never really considered anything like that. I think the puppets bring so much to the show, and it helps to bring a little bit of the look and character of the [Disney] cartoon into it.”

Again, there’s something very special about getting to see an entire theatre production being built quite literally from the ground up. With still just under a month to go before opening, everything is still being assembled, painted, tested and perfected. The puppets, designed and directed by War Horse veteran Jimmy Grimes, aren’t quite finished; most are lacking their furs and finishing touches, but that simply allows for an unrestricted look at the mechanics and craft that go into their remarkably fluid and beautifully authentic movements.

Just wait until you see the sheer character and feline grace of Mei Mac’s Persian cat, or the dignified nobility and poise of Emma Thornett’s ‘Missis’. It isn’t difficult to see why Walker and company felt puppetry was a no-brainer here.

And, even in rehearsals, with unfinished puppets and a company of actors in casual wear, the illusion is immediate and impacting. The performances of, say, the aforementioned Emma Thornett as ‘Missis’ and Oliver Wellington as ‘Pongo’, shone through in an Act II barn scene we were treated to, but so too are they channelled almost instantly through their canine marionettes. 

“Working on War Horse was my first experience of being a puppeteer, and I didn’t think I’d enjoy it at first, but I ended up loving it.” Thornett explains.

“As an actor, it brings its own set of challenges and disciplines. For instance, you have to always physically be in a ‘devoted state’ - poised and squatting - even if you’re in pain.”

“Sometimes it isn’t until you finish a scene that you realise… your body then tells you how much pain you’re actually in!”

“And I think, in a way, it’s a lot like when you first get your costume.” adds Wellington.

“I think I probably found it harder to find the character before I had the puppet.”

It’s a beautiful synergy of performance and puppetry that has been developed right down to details and specifics, such as the ‘hero’ Dalmatian puppets not having a pair of hind legs.

“That’s a conscious decision, so that the puppet and the actor sort of blend into one,” explains puppetry designer-director Grimes. 

“You can’t get away from the actor being there, and they are the ones giving the performance. The audience know that they aren’t real dogs, and we aren’t expecting them to think they are.”

“It’s kind of like you’re inviting them to play a game, and asking them to just pretend and go along with you on it.”

It’s an approach Grimes and his peers perfected with the likes of War Horse, and as production designer Jamie Vartan described, it’s important that every facet of the pair-up between actor and puppet is carefully considered:

“With the actors performing the puppets, its tempting to just have them dress in spots, but then you have this weird big Dalmatian-human hybrid which is just distracting. So, instead, we have the actors dressed up so that they blend in more with the design and look of the set, something Jimmy found worked really well on War Horse.”

It’s clear that every inch - and spot! -of Dalmatians is being meticulously pored over and refined.

But for all of the wonderment of its animal stars, the watercolour joy of its visual design and the love and passion being etched into every backdrop and prop, you simply can’t tell a Hundred and One Dalmatians story without one central, Machiavellian spanner thrown in the works of all this lightness and bonhomie.

Enter West End star Gloria Onitiri, stepping into the lavish shoes - and furs! - of iconic villain Cruella De Vil.

But it’s not quite the Cruella you know…

“I’m super excited,” Onitiri glows, “and I should be super nervous, but you know I’m not.”

“I think it’s because I really feel like I’m bringing something else to the character.”

Onitiri is in excellent company - many will be instantly familiar with the barnstorming work of Glenn Close in the Live Action Disney adaptations, or the raspy tour-de-force of Betty Lou Gerson’s voice acting of the character in the 1961 animated classic.

And yet, there’s very definitely no echo of mimicry or following of what has already been done here. Onitiri is clearly discovering her own distinctive - and personal - take on the character:

“For me, it was about finding her humanity, exploring what happened to her to make her be this way.”

“As an actor, that’s always important for me, to understand the character, so I came up with my own backstory for her, to help figure out where she’s coming from and why.”

“I imagined that, growing up, her family ran an animal shelter in their home at Hell House, and she saw her mother pour all her love and affection into the animals and dogs, but ignored her."

"So she grew up with this warped idea that ‘people will love me if I’m in fur, too.’”

It’s a surprisingly tender and somewhat tragic angle on a character many surmise as straight-up evil, yet one that in many ways is truer to the Cruella of Smith’s novel.

“In the novel, there’s a real sense of tragedy about her. Her hair, for instance, isn’t because she dyes it or wears wigs, it’s always been that way.”

“She’s always been different, felt like an outcast.”

“Yes, she does wicked things, but when people think of this Cruella, I want them in a strange way to really feel for her.”

Director Tessa Walker is full of praise at Onitiri’s deeper, more resonant take on the role:

“In casting Cruella, I was really looking for someone who could identify with Cruella and what she was doing.”

“It’s very easy to just say ‘Oh she’s greedy and wants a coat’, but we really wanted to give her a heart and some sense of sympathy, and I think Gloria is exploring that beautifully here.”

Despite this more pensive and considered take on the role, Walker assures audiences that the character’s lavish theatricality will still be front and centre, and that they’ve found their own way to ensure their Cruella makes just as much impact as the beautiful puppets and animal antics she’ll be sharing the stage with:

“There are these long, iconic monologues that Cruella has in the books, and we just felt that they’d be perfect to translate to song.”

“It’s all original music by [Musical Director James Frewer], and I really feel there is something special about that moment when someone stops talking and starts singing. It really raises the moment an extra level, and lends it a sort of epic status.”

“And of course, Gloria has a beautiful, powerful voice, so it’s all really raising our take on what this particular Cruella is.”

Going backstage on touring or West End productions is certainly insightful fun, but generally you find yourself exploring the finished product. Here, with The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the REP continues to build upon its reputation as one of the most important and inventive theatre venues in the Midlands, creating entirely original pieces in-house, and it’s fascinating - not to mention at times quite awe-inspiring - to properly dive into the work, love and ambition going into to getting Pongo and friends, and the world of Dalmatians, ready for action.

Doubly so considering the theatre just rolled out Nativity! the Musical to similar ambition and acclaim.

And if, as Walker and her cast repeatedly told us, the real message and theme of the Dodi Smith classic is one of camaraderie and working together, evinced in Dalmatian’s animal characters bandying together to save the puppies and overcome the wickedness of Cruella De Vil and her cohorts, then it’s that very spirit of solidarity and fellowship that is certainly being echoed by the very talented artists, actors, departments and designers working tirelessly and harmoniously to bring what is shaping up to be a barkingly brilliant, festive doggy treat of a show to Birmingham audiences this Christmas.

THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS runs at the BIRMINGHAM REP from Thursday 30 November 2017 through to Saturday 13 January 2018.

You can book your tickets now by calling the REP's Box Office direct on 0121 236 4455.

Alternatively, for more information on the show and to book your tickets online, you can visit the official website by Clicking Here.