It's a dog's life: Birmingham REP stage The 101 Dalmatians
There’s Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk. And there’s Peter Pan and Snow White. But those looking for something different for the festive season can head to Birmingham’s REP, which is producing a unique version of The 101 Dalmatians.
Dalmatians Pongo and Missis enjoy an idyllic life with their humans, Mr and Mrs Dearly. Then one day, the house is filled with the patter of tiny paws when Missis gives birth to a litter of adorable puppies. But just as the Dearlys get used to their new housemates, the puppies mysteriously vanish.
With the help of the canine community and an Old English Sheepdog, Pongo and Missis set out on an adventure to find the missing puppies. Their quest leads them to the vicious Cruella de Vil. She hates dogs but loves fur coats and has set her sights on a certain black and white spotty pattern. Will the animals be able to get home safely in time for Christmas?
The new adaptation of Dodie Smith’s delightful 1956 novel is the perfect festive treat and has been brilliantly transformed for the stage by Debbie Isitt, the writer and director of the hugely popular Nativity! films.
Tessa Walker has returned to direct the family favourite following her record-breaking 2015 production, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
Gloria Onitiri, who plays Cruella, says audiences are in for a treat. The show opened at the end of November and will run until January 13.
“It’s great. It’s a real story, it’s not just a fantasy panto, and it’s based on a real piece of literature with lots of depth. People can expect a bit of a spectacle with plenty of morality and right and wrong. It’s great.”
Though the production is avowedly not a panto a few Christmas rules hold dear – first among them, that such shows only work when there’s a great cast.
Gloria says: “Yes, we’ve got a ridiculously talented group of people on stage. It’s a multi-faceted and diverse cast with puppeteers, musicians who play multiple instruments as well as great singers, dancers and actors. It’s exciting. Without having to use lots of pyrotechnics – we don’t have to ‘Baz Luhrmann’ it – we’ve created a genuine spectacle.”
The dogs aren’t real. Of course. Though Hollywood movie makers might be able to train 101 Dalmatians, the REP’s production features an assortment of puppets.
Gloria laughs. “I think when I got cast if I’d have been told it was real dogs, I’d have said no. But the puppeteering works really well.”
The actress, who has previously featured on TV’s Doctors, Spamalot, Grass, Porgy and Bess and Bad Girls, enjoys playing the show’s villain.
“Everybody knows the Disney version, but the great thing about Cruella is that she’s human. She’s had a whole life. So I’ve had to work out where she’s come from and why she feels the way she does and why she is so mean and awful. What’s she hiding underneath it all?
“For me, any character you play, you need to do that with. You need a 3D character. I like people who are challenging. Everyone else would say she’s mad and she’s mean – I would say she’s challenging.”
Gloria has enjoyed a fascinating career in which she’s featured in everything from Jack and the Beanstalk to Taming of The Shrew and The Tempest. There have been plenty of classics – but she’s mixed those with productions like The Lion King at The Lyceum.
“I don’t think it’s just because of the dice. I think the diversity has been because I sing as well. I just love a good story, whatever is there in front of me, I’ll do it. I also think that by keeping myself as broad as I possibly can, my skills grow. It’s about longevity and keeping my options open.
“I’m obsessed with language. I studied English at university and I’m obsessed with the root of things and how stories have changed, not just from English culture, but from all cultures. I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare – Shakespeare is the mothership. I featured at The Globe in Taming of the Shrew, which was phenomenal. There’s a tradition that you have to wake up the stage before you start a show and we did a bit of drumming and all sorts and stood in the famous King’s spot. It was the first time my cast had been on the stage and I burst into tears because it was so powerful and emotional. It just happened. I did not will it. It is an emotional space. There are parts of the stage you can do a speech and feel comedy will work.”
Gloria is glad to be back home for 101 Dalmatians. She studied at University in Birmingham, leaving in 2006 and being too busy to return. “It’s like visiting an old relative. I’ve felt wonderful being back here. The REP building is just astonishing and everyone is really kind.”
The REP is getting into the charitable spirit during the show by creating a joint fundraising partnership with Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. The city centre theatre will be raising funds during the run of their production of The Hundred and One Dalmatians.
There are various fundraising activities planned during the run of the show, which will help to jointly fundraise towards Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s million pound campaign REP First and the work of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.
Twenty pence of every pound raised will go towards the work of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, with the remainder going towards REP First initiatives, such as providing interpreters for the REP’s youth theatre in order for Deaf children and young people to take part, as well as allowing the theatre to stage more accessible productions for people with a variety of additional support needs.
Tickets are available from the box office.