101 Dalmatians at Tobacco Factory Theatre

Image by Farrows Creative, with thanks
Image by Farrows Creative, with thanks

This year, the Tobacco Factory Theatre has once again teamed up with Bristol’s Travelling Light Theatre Company to produce a Christmas Show that would have any audience laughing until its face aches.

Dodie Smith’s children’s classic, 101 Dalmatians, might at first seem an unusual choice of play for a relatively small stage. I mean, how on earth could you get all those dogs in that space? All that energy and frolicking? It doesn’t take us long to find out as Pongo and Perdita, played by Tristan Sturrock and Lucy Tuck respectively, bound onto the stage, wiggling their bums (wagging their tails), panting and lolloping all over the place. On meeting in Regent’s Park, they promptly fall in love, as do their owners, Mr and Mrs Dearly, also played by Sturrock and Tuck, and they all move into together in a big house of bliss, jollity and, very soon, puppies.

But Mrs Dearly’s old school acquaintance, Cruella De Vil (Carla Mendonça), wants those puppies for a De Vil original coat and her doting furrier husband (Felix Hayes) can procure it for her. We can’t help but hiss and boo, in panto style, at Mendonça’s devilment: the woman doesn’t even have a conscience, no misunderstood criminal mastermind here! She’s simply deliciously evil.

Enter theft, chase, mayhem. Fun. Riotous Fun.

Directed by Sally Cookson, designed by Katie Sykes, with Benji Bower as Musical Director and a five-piece cast including Saikat Ahamed, as a perfect Nanny Butler, 101 Dalmatians is a lesson in Bristol theatre royalty. And it is probably the best Christmas show I have ever seen (“Yeah yeah!” I hear you mutter. “What about TFT’s Cinderella: A Fairytale? And then there was Hansel and Gretel?”)  True, they were brilliant too because the Tobacco Factory Theatre really does excel in these shows and, if possible, they seem to get better – really, just look at that cast!

Every single one of them!

Never have you seen a range of expressions as funny as those that Felix Hayes can pull. How can such a handsome man even look like that? As Mr De Vil, he is a grim, weedy, smitten, manipulative man; as Jasper Baddun, a criminal with a big heart and as Clarabel the Cow, an all-too convincing heifer, a born nurturer. And then the dogs!

Each cast member (including the 3 piece band) plays multiple roles and they really do do dogs well. They pour so much energy onto the stage, taking on canine characteristics that I’ve seen in the park or on WsM beach too many times. Tristan Sturrock is hilarious as Pongo, while we all feel for the wonderfully maternal Perdita and everyone wants to hug Ahamed’s Lucky the puppie. Dogs everywhere! This is a story fabulously told by actors who are clearly having a great time, Marc Parrett’s puppetry, dizzyingly quick costume changes and music.

Benji Bower, the man who brought us Jane Eyre earlier this year has joined forces with Will Bower and Ian Ross in a 1950’s style band, one that you can imagine populating the BBC radio waves, vintage microphones galore. Bower has suited the music so well to the story, fitting in with Sykes’ costume, prop and set design, the pair creating a feel true to (what I imagine to be) Dodie Smith’s original work.

My favourite scene might be the one where Cruella gives chase to the pack on her motorbike, immense scarf trailing in the wind. Or when our anti-heroine teams up with the band to sing of her lust for fur and we are transported to a smoky London club in 1956.

But the brilliance of this production is with the oneness the team, their love of theatre shining through and grabbing hold of all of us.

Aged 6+, this recommendation is probably about right, although there were many younger children in the audience. 101 Dalmatians is a fast-paced, uproarious treat and my 8 year old and I can’t fault it!

celeste dalmatian

101 Dalmatians is on at Tobacco Factory Theatre until 11th January 2015

– Review by Becky Condron

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