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The question on everyone’s lips as they entered the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s main stage ‘The HOUSE’ for this year’s festive performance was ‘how on earth are they going to get one hundred and one dogs on stage?’ Director Tessa Walker decided that puppetry was the answer, and enlisted puppet designer and director Jimmy Grimes to help her bring the dogs to life.

Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians follows the story of Mr and Mrs Dearly and their two Dalmatian dogs, Pongo and Missis, who are expecting puppies; puppies that fur-obsessed Cruella de Vil, an old school friend of Mrs Dearly, would love all for herself. Once their new puppies go missing, Pongo and Missis call for help from the dogs in the surrounding areas to help find them. The tale is a classic and magical one, and the chance to watch the REP’s adaptation of the story just before the Christmas holidays began was one I jumped at.

Mr and Mrs Dearly embrace (played by Morgan Philpott & Nadi Kemp-Sayfi)

The atmosphere in the theatre was excitable, billed to be a family fun-filled show, the crowd was packed with little ones and their parents and the show succeeded in pleasing both age groups; the adorable puppets and slapstick humour thrilled the kids, whilst witty humour and breathtaking staging wowed the older members of the audience.

The most extraordinary element of the production were the puppets, which brought to life the lead roles of Pongo, Missis and their friend Perdita (played by Oliver Wellington, Emma Thornett and Lakesha Cammock respectively) elegantly and effectively. Grimes studied canine movements and taught the lead puppeteers how mimic dog behaviour, and the result was so realistic that it was easy to get caught up and forget you were watching a human holding a toy, and not real dogs on the stage.

The puppeteers in action with Pongo and Missis!

Gloria Onitiri gave a stand-out performance as the evil, puppy-murdering Cruella de Vil, and her voice sent chills down my spine, and not just because she was singing about skinning the puppies for her fur coat…

Physical theatre played a big role in other aspects of the performance, such as Cruella’s fantastic entrance in her speeding car, made from actors holding up each of the car parts, including fluffy dice!, whilst a beeping, lurching car sound effect was played.

Cruella de Vil’s road-rage!

There’s no lack of audience interaction in this performance which makes it even more engaging for adults and children alike. The REP took a classic tale and brought it to life in a creative, funny and truly warm way that left the audience feeling all gooey inside – if you get a chance I would recommend going to see this quickly before it comes to an end on January 13th!